A Look in the Mirror: Do CDFIs (and CDCs) Reflect Their Communities?

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on October 23, 2014

Last year, I wrote about the teeming conference of the Opportunity Finance Network, the trade group for community development financial institutions, with a little bit of awe at how different it was from the rest of the community development world in its growth and optimism, worrying about mission creep rather than survival.

This year the conference surprised me yet again, but in a much different way. After some hard reflection, OFN's director Mark Pinsky has decided to take a square look at, and try to do something about, an issue that affects the entire field and is almost never talked about:

The staff and boards of community development institutions are, as a rule, much whiter than the communities they serve.

Now I don't have hard data on this for the entire field, but OFN does for its members. In 2011, according to Pinsky, OFN removed a nominal requirement of membership that staff and board reflect their communities in exchange for getting data on how well they actually do, trading, in his words "intention for transparency."

"We thought this was a low bar," Pinsky reported, "but only half met it." They looked at voting patterns for the OFN board in 2012 and found "clear underrepresentation of small and people of color–led CDFIs." He referred to this as "third rail data," noting that while there were many angles on diversity, inclusion, and equity that needed addressing, race needs to be addressed first because of the structural racism that has specifically devastated many of the communities where CDFIs work.

"OFN has not done its job well enough," said Pinsky. "I have not."

At the conference it was coded no more, with the opening plenary session, Pinsky's state of the field speech, and the facilitated discussions at the membership meetings all focused on the topic of how to become more inclusive and equitable, and how that will improve the actual work of CDFIs.

Attendees learned about the work OFN was doing, with the help of Race Matters Institute, such as committing to at least 50 percent of the semi finalist pool for all hires being people who will increase staff diversity, and proactive outreach that had increased participation in the election process by people of color–led CDFIs by 57 percent.

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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