The following is a conversation between Maurice Jones, President and CEO of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: LISC, or the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, has a well-earned reputation for having become an incubator for innovation in the community development field, effectively aligning the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and catalyzing opportunities in both urban and rural communities. And with us this evening to tell us about that work and its impact is their President and CEO, Maurice Jones. Good evening, Maurice, and welcome to the Business of Giving.
Maurice Jones: Good evening. Thanks for having me.
Denver: Tell us about LISC, or Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and the mission and goals of the organization.
Maurice: Absolutely. So LISC is an almost 40-year-old enterprise. Our mission, basically, is to work with partners at the local level to forge opportunities. Communities of opportunity. That’s what we’re about. How we do it? We invest money in these communities; we bring other money and combine it with ours. We serve as what I would call a backbone organization where we help get projects done; we work on public policy issues, and then we serve as an advisor to investors in these communities, as well as the communities and residents themselves who are trying to get work done. We’re doing work in the affordable housing space. We’re trying to get people prepared for jobs that make a living wage. We’re trying to attack food deserts. We’re trying to make sure that people have health facilities. Those are the problems that we’re trying to solve through the means that I just discussed.
Denver: An absolutely holistic approach. As you alluded to, you’re about 40 years old. You’re founded in 1980. What have you been able to achieve and accomplish in those nearly 40 years?
Maurice: In almost 40 years time, LISC itself has invested over $17 billion in these communities. I’ll tell you more about our offices. We have offices, about 31 offices or so, all across the country in urban areas. And then we work with another 80 or so partners in rural areas. So we serve the rural areas in 44 states, 2,000 counties. We’ve invested 17.5 billion. We have aggregated or leveraged with that 17.5 billion, $52 billion of investments in these communities, 366,000 units of affordable housing, and millions of square feet of facility space. When I talk about facility space, I mean child care centers, schools, fields for kids and adults to recreate on, theaters, all the kinds of infrastructure that a community needs to be a true community of opportunity. We’ve facilitated or done all of that in that almost 40 years.
Denver: A very nice track record indeed. I sometimes think that people have come to the conclusion that when it comes to addressing poverty, nothing really works– and that may be just as a result of this steady diet of bad news that we’re getting fed all the time. But you say that is essentially wrong. What is working and working well in tackling poverty?
Maurice: There are so many things that are working and working well. So I’ll give you an example. We have these enterprises around the country now called financial opportunity centers. The goal of a financial opportunity center is to basically help an individual in one of these underserved areas get onto a pathway of a career making a livable wage job. You come into these centers, and they’re based in the communities where people live. You get three kinds of services. You get one-on-one coaching on the financial side. The goal there is: get your credit score or increase your credit score, and get you to a point where you’re making a budget so that you know what it takes for you to be cash positive. That’s number one.
The second goal is: get you prepared for a job. Career readiness. Now, what that often means, 70% of the residents that come through, they may actually have a high school certification or diploma or a GED, but their reading and their numeracy skill sets are 6th to 8th grade. We’ve got to help them get to 10th grade levels or get into a training program to get the right credential for a job.
Denver: And also probably help them with the soft skills too. So when they are in an interview, they would know how to handle them. We’re never taught that in school.
Maurice: No question. It is really important. The third area that they receive help in is: we connect them with the kinds of assistance or investments that they need while they’re trying to increase their wages. Help with childcare, help with housing and food. That bundled group of services has helped thousands of individuals improve their net worth, improve their credit scores, get jobs, stay on jobs long enough where you are earning a livable wage. Job tenure is a big piece of it. It has helped transform people’s lives.
I talked to one individual who had been incarcerated for seven years. He had a drug offense. He was in his 20s. He went through one of these financial opportunity centers; he came out of it in 24 months, and this guy was in a job where he was making $42,000 a year. That in and of itself was impressive, but what was most impressive is when you talked to him and you heard him say, “I got something to lose now. I got a daughter and I can help my daughter achieve…” It transformed his life. It wasn’t just about the job. It was about this guy becoming a new being. That works, right? What our country has to do is invest more in that, and they also have to stick with it. The one thing I will say about this work is it’s patient work.
Denver: This is not a quick fix.
Maurice: This is not a quick fix. These are not quick fix challenges that we have. But boy, there are things like that working all over the place. Affordable housing, same sort of thing. So, yes, there are solutions out there, and we see them, and we’re a part of them. We’re trying to make sure that we can scale them across more communities.
Our belief is that the most important assets for opportunity are at the local level where people live. So we first and foremost try to find local partners. It includes both nonprofit and for-profit. It also includes non-government and government. We got to have all of them at the table.
Denver: Give us an example of one. As you said you’re in 31 urban centers around the country, not to mention the rural ones. But you’re in Buffalo and Flint, Duluth, and Chicago and Boston and Houston and Jacksonville and Indianapolis, and so on. Tell us how you go about this work as you’re entering into one of these communities… and where you invest… and the impact that you’ve been able to have.
Maurice: In general, the keys for us are fine, good, local partners. What I mean by local partners are developers who are interested in developing affordable housing in a community or workforce trainers who are interested in developing equipped talent in that particular community. So the first key is: you’ve got to build on the local assets, right? Our belief is that the most important assets for opportunity are at the local level where people live. So we first and foremost try to find local partners. It includes both nonprofit and for-profit. It also includes non-government and government. We’ve got to have all of them at the table. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing we do is we invest money and blood, sweat, tears, and time in building the capacity of those local partners. I mentioned those financial opportunity centers. What we do is find a local enterprise that’s already doing some elements of this and invest in their transforming into becoming a full-fledged financial opportunity center.
Denver: You do not recreate the wheel. You make the wheel better.
Maurice: We do not recreate. We make new stuff. We actually go in and help the assets that are there transform into becoming more effective, more impactful.
Denver: A very smart approach.
Maurice: The third thing we do is: we have to invest money. We are investing grants. We are investing loans. We are investing technical assistance. And we’re investing them in enterprises themselves, be it developers or businesses. We’re also investing in infrastructure. By infrastructure, I mean, it could be, if you’re talking about a commercial facility, building, helping people take buildings that have been offline, or dilapidated, and basically bringing them back to life, putting them back on the market, helping people restore streets. Rehabbing homes. So the infrastructure that you need.
In addition to that, what we end up doing is making sure we’re working to bring together on a high-functioning team.. all these players to get projects done. We are often herding cats, but it works. That sort of combination of investing, aggregating resources, being a backbone to help implement, investing in local capacity, it works. It’s a formula that works in urban areas, it’s a formula that works in rural areas.
You have to become a part of the place that you’re trying to be helpful to. You have to build relationships; you have to know the capacity; you have to know the weaknesses and the strengths; you have to own it. You have a stake in it.
Denver: The missing piece so often is that backbone function. Everybody wants to fund the program but nobody wants to fund the backbone, but the backbone’s what makes things work.