OFN Board Candidate Q&A: Ellis Carr of Capital Impact Partners

  • "Our work is about creating access to education, health care, healthy food, eldercare, and housing."

Philadelphia, PA, October 19, 2015 (CDFI Connect)—At the OFN Conference in Detroit this year, seven candidates from OFN Member CDFIs are up for five seats on the OFN Board. A Voting Delegate from each Member CDFI will cast a ballot to select which of these nominees will hold a seat. To help you get to know the candidates better, CDFI Connect will conduct an interview with each in advance of the election on November 11, during OFN Connect.

Today, we hear from Ellis Carr, CFO of Capital Impact Partners.

Tells us a bit about your CDFI--geographic reach, communities served, mission.

We are a national nonprofit CDFI, headquartered in Arlington, VA, with offices in Oakland, CA and Detroit, MI. We have a 30-year history of investing in underserved communities nationally. Our work is about creating access to education, health care, healthy food, eldercare, and housing. With roots in the cooperative movement, we support cooperative development through financing and awards.

While our work is national in scope, during the past five years we’ve focused our efforts specifically in Detroit to help that city rebuild.  As a result of that effort we were selected as the recipient of the Wells Fargo NEXT Award for Opportunity Finance in 2013.

How does your CDFI ensure that multiple voices are heard and different perspectives—from both your staff and the communities you serve— are included in decisions about your CDFI?

I believe it is senior leadership’s job to create the opportunity for folks to plug in. Internally, we have a culture of collaboration and innovation to develop and drive strategy and ideation. Our culture helps foster engagement, which involves listening and responding to the ideas of everyone involved.

An example of that is our Cultural Awareness to Create Harmony (CATCH) committee comprised of staff across our organization. This allows us to have conversations about what is going on both within the organization as well as the communities around us. For example, we recently had a dialog about unconscious bias and police violence in the communities we serve.

We use a similar approach within our local communities. In Detroit we lead a cross-sector partnership effort called the Detroit Corridor Initiative (DCI) which seeks to bring together a variety of voices to support the city’s growth. A key outcome of the DCI is their new report “Toward Inclusive Growth in Detroit.”

We’ve also taken on the approach of hiring staff who live in various places across the country so they can be engaged with the local communities, and understand the local context and use that filter to help support. This helps drive a lending strategy to provide maximum benefit to those we are trying to help.

From your personal perspective, what drew you to the industry? What keeps you here? How do your personal background and life experiences inform your work?

Both of my parents were DC public school teachers in underserved areas of the city. I saw firsthand how hard they fought to provide equal opportunity for their students. Watching my parents showed me that I had a responsibility to create connections across our communities. This has translated into me having a purpose in my community, and in community development finance across the country. Through my pre-CDFI career, I served as a chairman of minority recruitment as an undergrad, mentored at-risk youth, and sought opportunities to coach people throughout my career. For 15 years I’ve worked with different types of financial institutions and volunteered on boards of non-profit organizations. These were valuable learning experiences, but I wasn’t able to play the direct role and create impact. In my role at Capital Impact Partners, I can step beyond the numbers and contribute on a personal level to the things I care about. Now I can do what I am passionate in a more substantive way at Capital Impact Partners.

What keeps me here is my colleagues—I have never meet a group of more selfless, passionate individuals who are committed to serving social and economic justice issues.

What have you learned during your time as a CDFI practitioner?

The biggest thing I have learned is about the rich history and successes of the CDFI industry. I start with this because CDFIs are not that well known outside of the CDFI industry, and we need to work on this as a community and an industry. We have a great story to tell and we need to tell it better in the future. To develop the right narrative, we need to work together as large and small, urban and rural, organizations and ensure we give a complete picture of the impact we are having at the industry level.

Another thing I have learned is that challenges within the community are always changing, and becoming more complex. A solution may work in one scenario but not in another. It says to me that we have to continue to innovate as an industry because the capital we have today probably will need to look much different in the future.

Are there policy issues you're especially interested in? Why?

Securing appropriations for the CDFI Fund is a top priority, and protecting the funding for the CDFI Program. It’s hugely important to sustain this funding for growing our industry. Financial Assistance awards provide that capacity building support that allows CDFIs to grow and expand, moving into new communities. The Capital Magnet Fund is another policy issue I’ve been focused on that will expand affordable housing across the country.

I am very interested in policy that really helps the folks who are aging to be independent. Initiatives that to help low-income communities with senior populations to age with dignity and grace, and most importantly to stay in their neighborhoods.

What sets you apart as a leader? How would you use these skills on the OFN Board?

First, vision sets the stage for an organization. I try my best to get the people involved around me to contribute to the vision. Doing so not only creates buy-in but ownership. Then it is about effectively trusting people to take risks.

Second, effective communication. One of the most important parts to leadership is sitting back and listening. I ask questions to listen and learn from my colleague’s perspectives. And I find ways to communicate the vision we come up with together so it is easily understood and inspires people. I feel like those same attributes can easily translate into the OFN Board; to create a vision that inspires and catalyzes the industry. I want to talk to and work directly with the OFN Membership to make sure they can be heard, and people can feel plugged in.

Third is my variety of for-profit and non-profit experience. I understand the needs of large banks. I have developed partnerships with foundations. I have friends and colleagues at CDFI’s of all sizes and geographies. I have engaged on policy issues and I’m excited about bringing all of this together to advance the agenda of our sector as a whole.

If you win a seat on the board, what are your priorities for OFN?

The focus on equity and inclusion at last year’s Conference really struck a chord with a lot of people. It made me think about having a group of individuals in this industry that more closely represents the communities we are serving. Increasing diversity by intentionally identifying, recruiting, and developing the next generation of leaders in OFN’s Membership.

I want to enhance our brand and get our story out there. Every time I talk to people about what we do, people get inspired. Doing this more effectively as an industry represents a huge opportunity.

Advancing our policy agenda. We need a strong voice at federal, state, and local levels. A lot of change is coming over the next few years, so we must position ourselves as a strong and united CDFI industry.

What major challenges or opportunities do you see facing CDFIs nationally? What sort of progress would you like to see across the CDFI industry as a whole over the next few years?

First, the Presidential elections, and a changing political environment can impact the CDFI Fund. It is important to support funding for the CDFI Fund, and we can do this by getting the word out that our business model is one that is bipartisan. But if we don’t make a strong enough statement, the challenge will be that some of the support we do have and enjoy with this current administration could be at risk.

Another challenge is capital. The great part about the CDFI Bond Guarantee Program is the access to long term capital it provides. However, the market had a mixed reaction to this, and the capital markets have changed as a result. It will be a challenge to respond to the changing capital markets as we try to align capital with justice. We must have adequate capital to effect the change we want.

Our opportunities are all about aligning capital to justice—there is an opportunity with the capital piece. And particularly the events of the last 18 months around policy, violence, and equity. The conversation is moving in a direction that aligns with what CDFIs are here to do.


This interview has been condensed and edited.

More about Ellis here and here.

More about Capital Impact Partners here.

Learn more about the full slate of candidates and how to vote at OFN Connect here.