Fed Encourages Bankers To Be Innovative in Community Development Financing

When you build a better mousetrap, you're not actually starting from the ground up. You're taking an existing product and making it better.

Likewise when you, as a banker, are looking at community development financing, there's no need to start from scratch. Take the innovative approach by taking advantage of what's already available-and make it better.

That's the continuing message of the St. Louis Fed's Community Affairs department, which sponsored the well-received "Exploring Innovation: A Conference on Community Development Finance," held in May in St. Louis. Community Affairs is using the lessons and resources from that conference to offer ongoing community financing innovation assistance throughout the Eighth District.

"The whole point of the conference was to help attendees realize that they don't have to be the genius who comes up with a new invention," says Matt Ashby, senior community affairs specialist. "Instead, we wanted them to see that innovation can involve bringing together people from different corners of the community."

To help attendees understand the concepts and come away with something useful, the conference was far more than a mere "sit-and-listen" event.

Innovative about Innovation

Glenda Wilson, Community Affairs assistant vice president, explains that other than a few keynote speakers who laid the groundwork for thinking innovatively about community development financing, most of the sessions revolved around facilitated discussions, small breakout sessions, unique note-taking techniques, networking and sharing of experiences. "We sought to create an environment where the learning could flow between our presenters and attendees," says Wilson.

Attendees included bankers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and representatives from numerous community organizations, municipal governments, academia, and more-including some from outside the Eighth District. "We were quite pleased that we were able to help this diverse group come together and see how their individual components could mesh, whether they worked in finance, affordable housing, entrepreneurship or economic development," Wilson says.

And just what did they learn? Some of the many financing concepts that presenters and organizers drove home were:

  • Use the already-established resources in your community in a collaborative sense.
  • Be creative in your approach to find sources of capital, which can include social groups and the government.
  • Start thinking in innovative ways to help others outside your immediate circle and draw them into your network. For example, identify business models that nonprofit organizations could use to become self-sustaining; or determine what role your financial institution can play to address a developer's needs to make a project work.

Those examples barely begin to give an idea of what was presented, discussed and mulled over throughout the conference. Innovation presenters also wanted attendees to look inside their organizations, as well. For example, Paul Light, a professor at NYU Wagner, gave four characteristics that innovative organizations share:

  • They know the future will change, which helps them stay relevant.
  • There are six or fewer layers between the top and bottom, making them agile as organizations.
  • Their employees are saturated with information about what is going on and are more likely to offer ideas to generate change.
  • They realize that changing things requires knowing the starting point and anticipating where they could end up.

If you want to fully understand what attendees heard and learned, go to www.stlouisfed.org/community/innovation/web/framepages/index.htm and scroll through each day's notes. You'll see the ideas that were presented, as well as the actual notes of those ideas.

To take innovation in community development finance further, Wilson and Ashby recommend using the notes from the conference as both a starting point and an ongoing resource. The conference page is a permanent addition to the Fed's web site.

And in 2008, the Community Affairs staff will kick off the first Exploring Innovation in Community Development Week, with activities planned throughout the District.

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