The Big Picture: Careers in Community Development

Community development empowers people to revitalize their communities by equipping them with the necessary skills, knowledge, tools, and resources to overcome historic disparities and hardships. The field seeks to rebuild the inequitable systems that leave certain populations isolated, marginalized, and without access to important resources. While international development deals with similar issues in developing countries, community development efforts focus on the United States.

  • 700,000 households in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas have no access to public or private transit.1
  • 86% of people with incomes above $75,000 report voting in presidential elections- compared to only 52% of people with incomes under $15,000.2
  • An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing, and a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.3

The lowdown

What can you expect if you decide to go into the community development field?

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.

Empathy matters

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.

Meet the players

Who's addressing community development issues, and how?

Nonprofit organizations

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).


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.


Companies often take a strong interest in the communities where they operate, funding local organizations and encouraging volunteering. 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.)

Social enterprises

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

  • Traditional banks, like Bank of America, 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.

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