The challenges—and the unexpected benefits—of collaboration among community development financial institutions (CDFIs) were the subject of a recent gathering in Cincinnati that focused on the experiences of CDFIs that have received funding from the Partnerships for Raising Opportunities in Neighborhoods (PRO Neighborhoods) program, a five-year, $125 million competitive initiative funded by JPMorgan Chase.
Kicking off the event, Karen Keogh, Head of Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase, welcomed civic and non-profit leaders, along with the directors of the award-winning CDFIs to a renovated union hall in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, commenting that the neighborhood, which many of the attendees had a personal hand in revitalizing, was “like Brooklyn, but cooler.” In her remarks, Keogh described JPMorgan Chase’s philanthropic efforts, focused on workforce readiness, small business growth, consumer financial health, and supporting communities and neighborhoods. Part of this last area of focus, the PRO Neighborhoods initiative encourages CDFIs to take on specific community development challenges.
At the event, Alexander von Hoffman, a Joint Center Senior Research Fellow who is examining the initiative’s methods and achievements, and Colleen Briggs, Executive Director of Community Innovation at JPMorgan Chase, discussed findings of the Joint Center’s research on the work of the PRO Neighborhoods recipients. Dr. von Hoffman noted that, according to a Progress Reportreleased last fall, the entities funded by the first seven PRO Neighborhood awards have made $240 million in loans and leveraged another $350 million in additional funding. This funding has helped create 2,400 jobs and produced or preserved 1,600 units of affordable housing.
These efforts, von Hoffman said, spanned a wide array of programs, partnerships, and places. They ranged from groups like ROC USA, which took its model of helping the residents of manufactured houses purchase their mobile-home parks into new states, to collaborations between diverse programs in specific areas, such as PRO Oakland, which makes loans to small businesses, nonprofit groups, and low-income housing developers along International Boulevard and in downtown Oakland, California. Carrying out complex collaborations in diverse locales, von Hoffman explained, has taught the PRO Neighborhoods group leaders that to succeed they must be flexible, sensitive to markets, and communicate regularly with their partners.
Successful partnerships require strong relationships, added Jeanne Golliher and Joe Neri, the CEOs of Cincinnati Development Fund (CDF) and IFF, two CDFIs that were part of the Midwest Nonprofit Lenders Alliance (MNLA), one of seven entities funded in 2014 via a pilot program that became the PRO Neighborhoods initiative. They explained that MNLA, which is the subject of a recent Joint Center case study, brought together CDF’s local knowledge and IFF’s underwriting expertise to provide long-term facility loans to nonprofits in the Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, metro areas. (These included several projects in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.) Recounting the “courtship” that led to the CDF and IFF collaboration, Neri and Golliher described how clear communication and commitment to shared values and social goals turned “love at first sight” into a strong and fruitful “marriage.” Neri, for example, noted that Golliher’s passion for the people of Cincinnati ultimately led IFF to provide funding for a homeless shelter that was outside their organizations’ planned collaboration.
In formal and informal discussions at the event, leaders of other entities that have been funded by the PRO Neighborhoods program echoed Golliher and Neri’s remarks. Several participants noted that getting on the same page and hashing out details at the beginning of a collaboration can easily take a full year. This means that potential partners must be patient and probably should build “ramp-up” time into their plans. Extending the relationship metaphor that Neri and Golliher had used, several people also cautioned against “shotgun marriages” between CDFIs who come together only to secure funding from grants. While such partnerships may initially seem like a good idea, poorly thought out collaborations often end in heartbreak, they warned. On the other hand, some participants noted, well-thought out collaborations often go beyond their original scope and foster a sense of commonality and common purpose that led to better engagement with local officials and civic leaders.