Ruth McCambridge One-on-One: Tackling Today's Challenging Community Development Issues

July 01, 2010

Ruth McCambridge

Ruth McCambridge was a featured speaker at the April 20 event “Restructuring and Retooling for the Future.” After the day’s event, she continued the dialogue with us and shared her insight on the state and future of community development.

Ruth McCambridge is editor-in-chief of The Nonprofit Quarterly, an innovative journal for nonprofit leaders. Its overarching editorial goal is to strengthen the role of nonprofit organizations to activate democracy. In 1999, she transformed the publication into a national journal. McCambridge has more than 35 years of experience in nonprofits, primarily in organizations that mix grassroots community work with policy change. Beginning in the late 1990s, she spent a decade at the Boston Foundation developing and implementing its diverse capacity building programs.

Bridges: Thank you, Ruth, for participating in the first of our series of videoconferences and dialogues on the future of community development and for granting us the benefit of your thoughts in this interview. As a former community organizer, what do you see as the three most challenging issues, other than funding, that local community development organizations face in today’s current economic climate?

RM: I am assuming that you are using the word challenging not only to indicate the problems that may be inherent in this time but also to denote opportunity. I think there is enormous opportunity right now for organizers to work with communities to help them to envision their best possible future. What is the business mix they would prefer? How do they want financial institutions and public entities to invest to create that future and how will they, themselves invest their time, energy and hope in it so others cannot deny the vision they are pursuing?

If you want to know what I think stands in the way of that, I believe that the recent past has been a time of enormous personal stress on many families. People are worried about their jobs, their homes, their children’s educations and they may be attracted to ways of zoning out in their rare moments where they do not have a mandatory activity. This could crowd out involvement in community building if you let it. I think that providing a positive alternative that energizes and restores hope and vision is what organizing has to be about right now, and that takes appearing on people’s doorsteps, in the hair salons and churches to ask people ‘What do you want in this community? What could it be?’

Bridges: Your print and online magazine, The Nonprofit Quarterly, closely monitors public policy affecting the nonprofit sector, including nonprofit community development. What recent public policy decisions or trends have you and your staff observed that impact the future of community development?

RM: NPQ has tracked the funding flowing to foreclosure prevention and rehab pretty carefully. It has been impressive to watch the CDC networks take this on, in terms of developing frameworks for action, filtering money to localities and getting the job done. Of course, intense time requirements for spending the money and doing the work have strained the capacity of many local groups, but the network as a whole seems to have functioned well. The weatherization money, of course, was not deployed as effectively, but that money was more often flowing through other types of organizations.

Bridges: You have spent a significant portion of your career as a staff member of a large philanthropic organization. Have you observed any movement in the philanthropic community toward shifting resources to support community development organizations? If so, can you give us a couple of examples? If not, why, in your opinion, have they not moved in this direction given the deteriorating conditions in many communities?

RM: If it weren’t for the foreclosure crisis and the response of some leadership organizations in the philanthropic sector, we couldn’t say that there has been a shift of philanthropic support toward community development. However, some examples of major foundation support, particularly the significant commitment of the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago to an ambitious, multi-year program of community development, is noteworthy. Nonetheless, the proportion of top foundation grant-making going to broadly defined “community improvement” hasn’t budged significantly over the years. Hopefully, the progress that community development is making in its response to the foreclosure program, taking the lead in a number of Neighborhood Stabilization Program efforts around the nation, will move the philanthropic needle higher for community development. CDCs that relied on the philanthropic support of banks obviously are having a tougher go with the financial and banking crisis.

Bridges: Community development as a field is mature after nearly 40 years. What do you see as the positive implications of this maturity?

RM: The maturity of the sector is clearly reflected in the development of a system of 3,500 to 4,000 operating CDCs in urban and rural neighborhoods and an infrastructure of national and regional financial intermediaries supporting their work. Their development of financial products to support increasingly complex community development projects, including in the areas of human services facilities and charter schools, is a noteworthy expansion beyond housing. The expansion of their financing of brick and mortar projects reflects an evolution of community development toward a broader, more inclusive definition that incorporates housing, economic development, human services, education and community policing as elements of what adds up to a sustainable community.

Bridges: Some have suggested that this maturity may be hindering new thinking and fresh ideas for the field. Have you observed a stifling effect on new ideas due to the maturity of existing community development leadership and practices?

RM: If there is anything stifling new ideas, it is the problem of young people in the field having few opportunities for moving up into leadership positions. Some years ago, there was a problem in community development with high rates of top-level turnover. We have been told that one of the challenges now is not enough emerging opportunities for young people in the community development movement to move into leadership positions and bring with them their fresh thinking about new directions for the sector.

Bridges: What is your advice to young people who desire to enter our field in terms of their educational choices and job opportunities?

RM: Community development is now much more than bricks and mortar. Young people in community development have to think of developing skills not only in finance and construction, but broader concepts of community building. Equally important is developing an understanding and analysis of community change. CDCs began in our country as change agents promoting social and economic equity and progress. Brick and mortar development was meant to be a visible indicator of progress toward that goal, not an end in itself. The holistic development of a community was the original purpose of CDCs, a purpose that is more important now than ever.

Bridges: Finally, what is your vision of the future of community development? What are the three to five ideas or elements that would comprise the rise of a thriving and sustainable community development industry in the U.S.?

RM: First, despite the large number of CDCs in the nation, there are many urban and rural communities that do not have indigenous, effective CDCs. The build-out of CDCs is far from completed. Secondly, there are some municipalities and counties that view nonprofit community developers with some degree of mistrust, rather than seeing them as partners in the implementation of community redevelopment goals. We still have to work on changing the hearts and minds of government officials to see CDCs for the skill and competence they can bring to community development goals. Third, the sector is still under-resourced, made more so by the sector’s reliance on philanthropic support from banks and from the GSEs. Foundations have to step up to the plate to provide more core support for CDCs. And fourth, there has to be a mechanism developed to recruit young people into the field and offer real opportunities for leadership. Those opportunities have to be racially and ethnically inclusive, as still too much of the nonprofit sector in general, not just CDCs, that serves racial-ethnic communities is led by people who don’t reflect the demographics of the communities they serve.

Thank you again, Ruth, for sharing your wisdom and vision with us. To our readers—you can visit The Nonprofit Quarterly at

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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