September 12, 2017

Podcast: Working With Partners to Achieve a Mission

In this interview with the Business of Giving, Maurice Jones, president and CEO of the Local Initiative Support Corporation, or LISC, describes how his organization brings local partners — nonprofit and for-profit, governmental and nongovernmental — together to develop affordable housing, build better schools, create safer neighborhoods, and provide financial opportunity to help job seekers in underserved areas.  

Individuals receive financial and career counseling and are connected to a network of social services to assure job tenure and a livable wage.



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.

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.

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.

Maurice: And the backbone is the hardest piece because it’s not a transaction. It’s a relationship. That’s another piece of this is… what we find is: if you truly want to help communities transform themselves, it’s not about going in and building this housing there or constructing this facility. 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. And that’s fundamental to our model.

Denver: How has the loss of manufacturing jobs impacted your communities?  And what is being done to address that loss of jobs?

Maurice: The loss of manufacturing jobs has been a key challenge for us. That’s really a big piece of what we’re trying to transform from. In many of the neighborhoods where we’re working now, it used to be the case that these neighborhoods had huge manufacturing sources that were employing thousands of people. Now you drive through these neighborhoods, and there are formerly occupied facilities where manufacturers were that have nothing there. The population has declined as a result of that; the housing stock has declined as a result of that; the people have aged there. So, what we’re trying to do is to go in and take an old manufacturing facility, for example, and turn it into an entrepreneur’s incubator.

Denver: Yes, retro-fit it.

Maurice: Yes. That’s exactly right. You’re asking to keep peace because for me, this is what I think often our country ignores. The people in the places that we’re working in are part of the American story. That loss of manufacturing is an American theme. That is what we are often confronting and helping communities wrestle with, where we work. That’s not something that you can marginalize and say: it’s just an issue related to poverty. No, no. That’s an American issue! That’s part of our story. So the loss of manufacturing jobs across the country is what we’re trying to be part of the solution for.

Denver: I can hear the urgency in your voice. It’s almost as if you’re in a race because some of these changes that are occurring, you have to race against those changing tides of our economy and have your communities keep pace and get out ahead.

Maurice: Absolutely. When you think about, if you want to put it in these terms, who our fiercest competitors are: the economy is one of our fiercest competitors. One of the things that has happened in our economy that we are fighting against and wrestling with is the loss of manufacturing jobs. Well, another piece now is this incredible digital revolution. Now, we have to make sure that the digital revolution comes to the places and the people that we’re trying to serve. That’s a competitor. We got to be fast about this. We have to be urgent or we’re going to lose the season; we’re going to lose the moment. Absolutely, no question.

Denver: It’s very difficult in this world. Once you fall behind, at the pace that it’s going, it really is hard to catch up again, isn’t it?

Maurice: I’m on iPhone version 6-point-something. Think about it. My daughter already has the 7, and there’s something else coming out.

We can’t just be fighting yesterday’s battles. We’re trying to equip people for today’s opportunities. Yes, we got to fight against the manufacturing job loss, but we also have to get people prepared for what’s happening in the digital world.

Denver: It’s about to come out. That’s right.

Maurice: That’s Exhibit A for what we’re talking about. It’s relentless; it doesn’t stop; it changes every six months. This is another thing I tell people in the communities that we’re trying to be helpful to. We can’t just be fighting yesterday’s battles. We’re trying to equip people for today’s opportunities. Yes, we got to fight against the manufacturing job loss, but we also have to get people prepared for what’s happening in the digital world.

Denver: You’re absolutely right. I know, Maurice, that one of your highest priorities is to create more living wage jobs in these communities, and I wanted to see what you have made of this: A recent study came out around Seattle, and Seattle mandated a rise in their minimum wage from $9 to $15. And when this study came out, it was indicated that it actually reduced hours, and there was an overall drop in total payroll for low-wage jobs in the city of Seattle. What do you make of that?

Maurice: Two things I would say: You will see studies about the impact of raising the minimum wage that are often contradictory…That’s the first thing. But the second thing is I want to make sure people…Our focus is actually equipping the talent in these under-resourced places so that they can compete successfully for living wage jobs that are already there, without any change to the minimum wage. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that the minimum wage should be raised. But what we focus on is creating talent that can be competitive.

So we focus on, for example, this incredible opportunity we have in the country now. Sixteen million middle-skill jobs have to be filled between now and 2025. These are jobs that don’t require four-year degrees but they do require post-secondary credentials and training – welding and HVAC and coding. The people we’re trying to serve can become credentialed. We focus on getting them credentialed in these, and then they can compete for the jobs anywhere in their region. That’s really what, for me, at the end of the day, is the issue or the opportunity is: get people equipped for things that the market is willing to pay well for, and you can change not only an individual’s life but a community’s trajectory.

Denver: You’re absolutely right. If you get them equipped, and you get them to get their credentials, there’s not a lot of competition for these jobs because we’ve had so many companies on this show say, “We can’t find people.”

Maurice: To tell you, it’s business’s biggest pain point, and it’s our communities’ biggest opportunity. We got to marry the two, though. We got to marry the two. I mentioned those 16 million jobs: 80% of them will become open because of retirements. We have an aging workforce for these jobs, and we haven’t done a good job of preparing people to succeed folks who are aging out of these jobs, but these are great jobs. Now, we have to convince parents that these are great jobs, that these are jobs that their children should aspire to, and they are jobs that parents should aspire to for their loved ones. That is part of the issue as well.

Denver: Yes, you’ve got to change that mindset. You’re thinking about going to college and becoming a doctor, it’s not the way it is, you know what I mean?

Maurice: There are multiple paths to a good life.

Arguably, the biggest infrastructure opportunity in rural America is broadband access. If we can bring more broadband access to rural America, the opportunities for small business, the opportunities for rural America to become more connected to the economic mainstream, not just in America but in the world, are enormous.

Denver: You do all this work in the urban communities, but you also may be one of the few groups that I know that also has a huge footprint in rural areas. Tell us about your work there.

Maurice: As I mentioned, we’re in 44 states, 2,000 counties, I believe it is, working across America in the rural areas. And rural areas are confronting many of the same challenges. The state of rural housing is challenged across the country now, so we’re often working with local actors to help rehab housing, manufactured housing in particular. Infrastructure is a huge, huge challenge and opportunity in rural America. Now, the uniqueness there is, arguably, the biggest infrastructure opportunity in rural America is broadband access. If we can bring more broadband access to rural America, the opportunities for small business, the opportunities for rural America to become more connected to the economic mainstream– not just in America, but in the world– are enormous.

Denver: Game changer.

Maurice: Game changer. Take Virginia, which is a case I know a little bit about. About 45% of rural Virginia lacks access to high-speed Internet. Forty-five percent! This is the 12th or 13th wealthiest commonwealth in the country. So imagine what that figure is for places that are poorer than Virginia!

Denver: They’re going to be left behind.

Maurice: You can’t do anything without it. I mean, it’s like oxygen. The other piece is talent development. You still have to invest in talent development. So we’re trying to do all of those things, facilitate all of those investments, also in rural America.

Denver: Yes. Speaking of talent development, you really believe that the expectations that someone has of you, and in the case of LISC, the expectations you have for the communities and the people you serve can make a huge difference. Why are expectations so important?  And how does LISC maintain really high ones?

Maurice: There’s no question that expectations are important for us as an enterprise because I want to make sure that we are aspiring truly…  there are 43 million people living in poverty, I think, in America, was the last count… I want to make sure that we’re aspiring truly to try to bring about a movement to eliminate that.  Period! That’s our life’s work. We need to exhaust ourselves doing it. And to the extent, you aspire to something less than that, guess what? That’s where you end up. Much less than that. I think it’s important for us as an enterprise with that kind of mission, to aspire audaciously, but I also think it’s important for the country’s national interest to realize that our continued competitiveness and quality of life really depends on how well we continue to bring these communities that are low-opportunity into the high-opportunity arena.

As I’ve travelled around the world, my appreciation for the fact that we live in a global economy, that we live in a global competitive arena, has been heightened. We can’t afford to have any places or any people that we are agnostic about. So our expectations, if we truly want to be good stewards for the people who come after us, need to be audacious.

I have a 14-year old daughter. I want her chances to be much greater than mine, just as mine have been much greater than my grandparents who raised me. What that means is we have to care about—I used to have a music teacher now. I won’t tell you how… grace is what allowed me to sing, in this choir. But the music teacher would stop me every now and then, and he would say, “Look, Maurice, if you want this piece to be a great piece, you have to care about every note.” We have to care about every person in every community in the country if we want to be great.

Denver: That’s a lovely metaphor. Let’s address your impact. How do you measure your return on investment?  And are there other metrics of success?

Maurice: We measure in a number of ways. We measure these concrete things: Jobs that are getting produced or acquired by the people we’re trying to help, units that are getting put online or preserved, schools that are being rehabbed. So we have these metrics that are about the hard real estate and then also about the people. But we also measure how well we are as a healthy business. As the Catholic nuns would say, “no margin, no mission.”

We have to be a healthy enterprise. We’re really proud. For example, we very recently got rated by Standard & Poor’s with a AA credit rating. We took that AA credit rating and went to the public capital markets and raised $100 million. First entity of our kind to do that. We also look at our loans and loan loss reserve and ratios that are economic ratios. I think the last piece, I would say, is we try to measure how we’re doing with respect to attracting and growing and developing talent that is talent that looks like the places that we’re working in. So that’s about culture; that’s about talent, et cetera. So we have metrics that are also looking at those things as well.

Denver: Well, you’re doing a lot of cool things, and one of them was at the beginning of August.  LISC announced a historic partnership with Facebook and others to help meet the demand for affordable housing in Silicon Valley. Tell us about this partnership and your role in it.

Maurice: We’re really excited. We’re going to manage a fund. It’s an $18.5 million fund that we’re going to grow to $75 million. Going back to what I told you originally, we leverage dollars. We’re going to grow this fund to a $75 million fund that will add affordable housing in the Menlo Park and East Palo Alto areas – the neighborhoods, the backyards of the headquarters of Facebook.

Now, this partnership is actually—It’s Facebook and a handful of community groups and us, as well as another CDFI that’s actually out there locally. We’re excited about this because it’s putting affordable housing units on the map in a place where the affordable housing crisis is as intense as any place in the country. Any place in the country. But we’re also excited because you have a partnership that includes a business, an incredible anchor business from the technology sector. You’ve got local, community-based organizations; you’ve got us as well who.. we will bring both a national experience as well as a local experience there. This could be a model, not just for East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, or for the Bay area, but for places around the country.

I am particularly excited that a technology company is embracing this work. This is a technology company that realizes that it has a corporate responsibility to make sure that the area where it works remains one where a balance of folks can afford to live, work, raise a family, and recreate. And we need more players from the technology space in the arena where we’re working.  So we’re really excited.

Denver: Yes, I find that really exciting for you because of the fact that in your line of business, most of your corporate partners are usually financial institutions and banks, and it’s so hard to break out of that. This may be the breakout moment.

Maurice: I want my invitation to all of the companies in the technology sector, and others as well, to follow Facebook’s lead. This is the thing: They can do it.  With the help of groups like ours and other community groups, these entities that are making incredible profits and creating this digital revolution across the country can also wrestle these social problems to the ground.

Denver: You’ve touched on this a little bit already, but I want to ask you more. The work that you do is really difficult work. And in order to be able to do it effectively, you have to have an engaged and an empowered and motivated staff. Tell us about the corporate culture at LISC and what about it allows you and your team to be able to do this work?

Maurice: One piece of the corporate culture at LISC is, I believe, this invitation that LISC provides to people to make a difference in people’s lives. What you find is that people want that. That’s true of all ages, but particularly young people. I hear people lamenting. Now I can say younger, even though it’s hard for me to say, the younger generation—

Denver: You’ll get used to it.

Maurice: You hear them lament, but what I find is they are very similar to my generation in at least this one aspect. They want to make a difference in the world. What LISC’s culture invites is people who want to make a difference. But we also are trying to create a culture that’s about innovation, that’s about using the market to solve social problems. We consider ourselves a mission-oriented business, so we attempt to operate like a business, but a business with a distinct mission about transforming communities and people. We try to hold ourselves accountable to business metrics that are customized to that mission as well.

The other thing I would say is we also try to create multiple cultures within the organization, so we have a tax credit syndicate. We’re the largest low-income housing tax credit syndicate in the country. We also have an affiliate that is really, really about business investment. And then we got people in the housing space. So the key for us is making sure that actually, within one entity, you’ve got a healthy dialogue; you’ve got a healthy collaboration going amongst multiple cultures.

Denver: That’s a nice learning environment for everybody.

Maurice: It sometimes can make you grow hair, but it hasn’t done that for me. The one thing it hasn’t done for me….is make me grow hair.

Denver: You know, you do have a remarkable story, Maurice. You were raised by your grandparents in Southern Virginia. Tell us a little bit about your journey to your current role as a CEO of LISC.

Maurice: I can’t say I planned it, but I can say that my… probably the most formative years, were in a small town of 1,200 in rural Virginia on a tobacco farm raised by grandparents. A grandfather who was able to go to school in a barn for six years, primarily because of his race, and a grandmother who did, because she lived in town, so to speak, finished high school in 11 years, and that was what you could do there. So they taught me heart. They had three things they wanted me to do: Get all the education you can get; work hard at everything you do; and be nice. Those were their three aspirations. I went on and practiced law for a little while, and I worked in state government, worked in federal government—

Denver: In Virginia?

Maurice: Yes. In Virginia and at HUD, and I worked in the philanthropic world for a while. My grandfather, if he looked at all of it, he’d say, “Boy, you just can’t keep a job.” I have a different explanation, but that would be his. He would probably be right, as he most often is. I would tell you, though. For me, this opportunity really resonated a lot because of my—

I was the Secretary of Commerce and Trade for Virginia in my last job. We had an incredible economic development record. I think by the time I left that job, we had sort of a net job increase in Virginia of over 100,000 jobs. But 80% of those jobs went to two places – Northern Virginia around D.C., and then the Richmond, Virginia area. And what was apparent to me was that the rest of the Commonwealth needed investment and work in order to become competitive as those two places. What really appealed to me about LISC is we work on that other 80% all the time. We are trying to get these other places to be as competitive as the Northern Virginia and the Richmond areas. That’s what really resonated with me about this opportunity. I wanted to do that 24 hours.

Denver: This job was made for you.

Maurice: I feel blessed to be in it. It’s a great job.

I particularly want us to lead the way in helping to get more folks in these communities where we are… prepared to compete for livable wage jobs and careers. That’s a particular aspiration of mine for LISC.

Denver: Let me close with this, Maurice. We discussed a moment ago about high expectations you hold for the communities and the people in the places where you serve, and I know you hold similarly high expectations for the organization you lead. What is your vision for LISC over the course of the next five years or so?

Maurice: I particularly want us to lead the way in helping to get more folks in these communities where we are… prepared to compete for livable wage jobs and careers. That’s a particular aspiration of mine for LISC. I think we are well-positioned with our footprint in urban and rural America and with our 30-some offices and incredible partnership network to do that. But the second piece I want to do relates to what you mentioned with respect to Facebook.

Historically, our anchor partners have been the financial institutions. We have to broaden our set of anchor partners, and I am particularly interested in the health community and the technology sectors. Those two sectors in particular, in my mind, are so aligned with us in mission and so ripe to be vital partners in this work that I want to make sure I exhaust myself trying to forge new partnerships with those industries. I think if we can forge more partnerships with these types of anchor institutions – higher ed, technology, and health – the partners for this work for decades to come, and this will require decades of work, will be really, really sound. That’s what we need.

Denver: Well, you’re certainly off to a good start. Maurice Jones, the President and CEO of LISC, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, I really want to thank you so much for being here this evening and for our great conversation.

Maurice: Thanks for having me. It was great.

Denver: For those who want to learn more about your organization, tell us about your website and what they might find on it.

Maurice: Yes, If you go up on the website, you’ll hear a lot of what we talked about today, but you’ll see where we’re working, you’ll see how we work, you’ll see stories, and I really, really commend the stories. When you see the stories of how people are transforming places and people at the local level, it will give you that counter-balance that you need to all the bad news that’s out there.

I tell people all the time: I limit myself to cable news exposure at the end of the day because I don’t want it to jade me when I go out every day, and I see these incredible enterprises and people transforming lives and places around the country. But you can get all of that. You can see our business model. You can see all of that on our website.

Denver: Well, do what I do, and eliminate it entirely. It serves no useful purpose. Thanks, Maurice. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Maurice: Nice to be with you. Thanks, man.