Everything You Need to Know About a Career in Community Development
What is Community Development?
Community development gives individuals and groups the opportunity to take action and address issues within communities. Problems ranging from economic to social, environmental to cultural can help to rebuild inequitable systems that leave certain demographic populations isolated, marginalized, and without access to important resources vital to living efficiently and successfully. This is a continuous effort to find solutions that benefit the community, and enact collective action to empower individuals and agencies to support and improve the lives of disadvantaged communities.
Why is Community Development Important?
- 86% of people with incomes above $75,000 report voting in presidential elections- compared to only 52% of people with incomes under $15,000.
- 20.6 million households spend more than half of their annual income on housing.
- A person must make $23.96 per hour to afford a two-bedroom rental in the U.S., meaning that a full-time minimum wage worker cannot afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in the United States.
- In 2018, 38.1 million people lived at or below the poverty line, with poverty being defined as a household income of $26,200 for a family of 4.
- In 2018, more than 37 million people, including 11 million children, struggled with hunger in the United States.
Careers in Community Development
There are a variety of different approaches to community development such as community engagement, self-help groups, economic development, community organizing and so much more. For example, you could educate business owners and community partners on zoning ordinances, work on job creation, or plan and implement sustainability projects within the community. Every opportunity in community development allows you to understand the population you are working with, and improve their lives based on actionable solutions.
There have been a variety of famous community development leaders throughout history such as Genevieve Brown, creator of the MBD Community Housing Corporation which focuses on housing units and revitalization projects in the South Bronx, and Lead Schneider, founding board member of the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing. Both women focused on how to create opportunity and address specific needs in their communities. Groups such as the Community Development Advocates of Detroit have been working for 20 years to improve the quality of life for residents through activities such as community organizing and physical development.
What to Expect from a Career in Community Development?
Put on your thinking cap
Community development often involves collaborating with various stakeholders with different (and sometimes conflicting) goals to create solutions that work. Successful people in this field are comfortable navigating complex problems, thinking creatively and holistically about problems, and identifying and gaining consensus on cross-sector solutions. If you tend to avoid conflict and opposition, or prefer to work only with people just like you, you may want to explore other fields.
The road is long and bumpy
Community development addresses issues resulting from deep-rooted problems that require systemic change. That change doesn’t happen overnight, and outside factors may force you to adjust your course along the way. If you’re considering this field, you should be comfortable with small wins over giant leaps forward, and navigating an unclear path - and you should be prepared to roll with the punches.
In many cases, the most effective leaders in the community development field have gained insight from their own experiences grappling directly with issues of poverty, homelessness, or unemployment. While you can certainly make a difference without having faced these issues yourself, having a high level of empathy for others is important. Test yourself to gauge your own level of empathy, and remember that you’ll need to spend time in the communities you hope to serve.
Skills and education necessary for Community Development
As community development jobs have a wide range of career paths, there is a variety of skills and education that is needed to succeed in the area. One of the most important qualities to have is passion; some people garner this through situations they experienced themselves. Nitiya Walker founded Seeds of Fortune, a scholarship empowering young women of color, after being unsure of how she would pay for college. Other skills needed are communication skills, networking abilities, and an understanding of community and social issues.
Education can range from a Bachelors degree to a Masters degree depending on the seniority level of the job and career path you intend to pursue. Learn more about the different paths to a career in community development with an Impact Careers Course.
Meet the players
Who's addressing community development issues, and how?
Nonprofit organizations are tax-exempt businesses that further social causes and benefit some area of public need. Groups like New Door Ventures and Mercy Housing provide youth programs, job training, affordable housing programs, and other services to underserved populations (check out Nonprofit Management for more).
Community development can tackle issues that are at a narrower scope, and require more individual and personal involvement. Some issues, such as infrastructure and city-wide initiatives, can require the need for governmental involvement. At the national level, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities brings the EPA, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the US Department of Transportation together to focus on creating sustainable, equitable cities. Numerous state and local agencies run programs for specific geographies.
Many companies take an interest in the communities they operate in, fund local organizations, and encourage volunteering. Some companies have a Corporate Social Responsibility sector that specifically addresses these needs. Others have highly-developed programs like IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, and Gap Inc.’s This Way Ahead, a job training and leadership development program. (See Corporate Impact for more.)
A social enterprise is an organization that maximizes improvements in areas of financial, social, and environmental well-being. These organizations use a business framework or revenue model to support their activities, and usually address a specific issue such as job training for ex-offenders or girls’ primary education. Usually characterized by a start-up culture, these enterprises offer employees lots of room to grow, try new things and work on the ground.
Financial institutions are corporations that provide monetary services and deal with monetary transactions. These institutions can provide capital that can advance community development goals.
- Traditional banks, like Bank of America which focuses on basic needs and community and workforce development through its various economic mobility programs, often have significant community development initiatives.
- Community banks like Industrial Bank are locally-owned and operated independent banks that focus on the needs of local businesses, communities, and families.
- Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) lie at the intersection of all sectors and provide financial services and opportunities to underserved, low income communities so they can achieve financial stability.
- Community Development Banks like Southern Bancorp, have missions to serve their communities’ economic development.
- Community Development Credit Unions, like Self Help, are run as member-owned cooperatives with missions aimed at helping low-wealth individuals.
- Community Development Loan Funds like Opportunity Fund offer financial lending and technical services for small businesses, community real estate ventures, and individuals.
- Community Development Venture Capital Funds like Pacific Community Ventures provide equity capital to build, strengthen, and grow businesses that benefit lower income individuals and communities.
Now It’s Your Turn!
Options within the field
Workforce Development creates new job opportunities for historically under-resourced communities and prepares individuals to become part of the workforce.
- Employment Readiness
- Youth Programs
Economic Development creates institutions, solutions, and access to financial resources, capital, and programs so low-income individuals and communities can reach financial stability.
- Access to Capital
- Affordable Housing
- Financial Empowerment
- Small Business Development
Civic Development improves and revitalizes historically marginalized communities by ensuring they have access to basic infrastructure and have an active citizen population.
- Basic Infrastructure Development
- Civic Engagement
- Community Organizing and Advocacy
Events and Resources
Explore available opportunities through Net Impact’s Job Board.