Community LIFT

Community LIFT is an acronym for Leveraging Investments for Transformation, but perhaps, simply the word lift describes it best, because that’s its mission: to give Memphis neighborhoods a lift.

The roots of Community LIFT were laid in 2008 through a partnership between several local organizations including the Assisi Foundation, Community Development Council, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, among others.  This collaboration gave birth to the planning process that produced Greater Memphis Neighborhood: A Blueprint for Revitalization. The plan assessed the state of community development in Memphis and recommended the creation of an “intermediary” that would build collaboration on neighborhood redevelopment between community development corporations, government agencies, foundations, businesses, and nonprofit organizations committed to neighborhood redevelopment and revitalization.

The plan gathered momentum in September, 2010, when Eric Robertson was hired to head up the work of Community LIFT. He left his position as chief administrative officer of the Downtown Memphis Commission because he saw the opportunity to be involved in a “city-building opportunity that is about building what Memphis will look like decades from now.”

His first year on the job was spent putting together his new organization and an innovative, data-driven method to assess needs and assets in order to select the three initial target neighborhoods which receive a focused effort for maximum impact. The neighborhoods -- Soulsville, USA; Binghamton and Frayser – were chosen to begin implementing strategies developed to build human capacity, promote economic development and improve neighborhood environment.

After 19 months, the organization has grown from a staff of one to a staff of seven people and the budget increased from $300,000 to $1.5 million.

The operating philosophy is simple and direct. “Failure is not an option,” said Mr. Robertson, who works with a 12-member board headed by Memphis business leader Archie Willis. “We see community development as place-based, data-driven, evidence-based, and asset-based strategies,” said Mr. Robertson. “All the work we’re doing is moving in that direction. It’s holistic. It’s about the built environment, walkability, human capital, economic opportunity, quality of life, health, safety, economic development, and transportation.”

Gretchen McLennon, program director at the Hyde Foundation, said: “We see Community LIFT’s collective impact approach as the next phase, the next generation, of neighborhood redevelopment writ larger. It just makes good sense for communities and organizations to work together instead of in silos with dispersed one-off successes and taking a comprehensive look at change. By coordinating efforts, as Community LIFT will be doing in its three target areas, growth and revitalization will be ramped up exponentially.”

Already, Community LIFT has set up a second and separate entity, River City Capital Investment Corp., a community development financial institution that gathers capital and makes loans and grants.

Next on the agenda for Community LIFT is to invest $678,000 in “comprehensive neighborhood plans for our three target neighborhoods,” said Mr. Robertson. “The bulk of our second year’s activities are about engaging the community, establishing stable neighborhood councils that are a cross-section of residents, businesses, community-based organizations, and institutional partners.”

There is no “one size fits all” in the operating principles of Community LIFT. Instead, each neighborhood requires a distinctive plan to respond to its distinctive needs and to maximize its distinctive assets, said Mr. Robertson. “It’s about going through the challenges, how to leverage existing resources to address them, how to align activities to more strategic, and how to fill gaps in resources that are needed. It’s not about something from the top down. It’s about everyone coming together to say, ‘we want to revitalize our neighborhoods.’”

His greatest points of pride in Community LIFT are that an “exceptional group of individuals who are helping officially and unofficially and our contribution to the conversation about working in a targeted way with targeted resources.   In that regard, he commended the Hyde Foundation for its early and continued support for the aspirations of Community LIFT. 

“They always encourage us to aim for excellence and support us as we do,” said Mr. Robertson.