Past, Present, and Future of CDFIs: Q&A with OFN’s Dafina Williams

Recently honored as one of Women in Housing & Finance’s “40 under 40,” OFN Vice President of Public Policy Dafina Williams has been quietly driving transformational change in communities across the country over her past 13 years at OFN. 

An industry veteran, Dafina is brimming with valuable insights on CDFI challenges, opportunities, and impact. The OFN team recently caught up with Dafina to capture some of her knowledge and perspectives, including her thoughts on OFN’s relocation from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. 

“For CDFIs, the community is not an afterthought. They’re the priority.”  

  1. Tell us about your career journey at OFN and how you ended up working in the CDFI space? 
    I started at OFN as a public policy intern in 2006 when I was finishing undergrad at Temple University. I found the internship through Temple’s job board and thought it’d be good experience since I was interested in politics and civic engagement. My role was to help with outreach and CDFI advocacy during the 2006 midterm elections by mailing paper surveys to every candidate running for Congress, which we intended for them to complete and mail back to us. Fortunately, technology has evolved a bit since then… 
    What was supposed to be a six-month internship ultimately turned into a year-long internship. Then as I was graduating, early warning signs of the Great Recession began to surface. Interestingly, CDFIs were sounding the alarm bells well before anyone else since OFN members did a lot of mortgage lending.    
    During my internship, I became more and more intrigued by CDFIs, and finding a full-time job elsewhere wasn’t looking good for me, so I was lucky that OFN created a fulltime position as a public policy and strategic communications assistant before the bottom of the economy fell out. Now, fast forward 13 years, and I’m serving as VP of public policy. 
  1. What do you think makes CDFIs most valuable?  
    CDFIs have proven they’re able to survive and even thrive during periods of contraction in the economy. During multiple deep recessions over the past few decades, CDFIs have continued to serve their communities while many mainstream financial institutions were failing or forced into mergers. The same goes for disaster recovery. Every time others are wringing hands in the face of a challenge, there are probably CDFIs actively figuring out how to address the issue. The field’s ability to stay the course with resilience and nimbleness, and even thrive in adverse economic conditions, is amazing. 
    The commitment of CDFIs to remain rooted in local communities is also a big part of the industry’s success. We go out and talk to business owners on the ground. No matter how sophisticated technology becomes, direct, face-to-face interaction is core to what makes CDFIs different and stronger. It’s our competitive advantage. 
  1. If there was one thing you could do to help CDFIs move the needle further, what would it be?  
    Often people in the industry say CDFIs are the “best kept secret” in economic development. But the scale of the need is so massive that if we really want to see changes to poverty and economic conditions of poor people, we’re going to need much greater investment and access to resources. We can’t do it by building one house or financing one business at a time. Part of the challenge is figuring out how to scale efforts and stop keeping CDFIs a “secret.” 
    Constantly having to make the case to stakeholders who’ve never heard of CDFIs and trying to convince them about the value CDFIs bring takes countless hours away from actually doing the work to get capital to communities and create impact. We need to raise the profile of the industry so we can spend more time raising enough dollars to move the needle more substantially. 
  1. Do you see any trends in the CDFI that particularly concern you? 
    I’m most concerned about CDFIs’ preparation for the next economic downturn–not for our organizations but for our clients. Most CDFIs will be fine. It’s part of our model. We’ve consistently weathered recessions. But what does the next economic downturn look like for the people we serve? How can we start thinking about how to prepare now while things are relatively good?  
    If we have another massive wave of unemployment, it’s definitely going to impact our customers and their ability to repay their loans, particularly people of color, rural communities, and low-income individuals. We already know this. We’re supposed to be in the business of building up communities, so how do we best prepare to help those at risk of suffering the most to weather this inevitable next recession?  
  1. What’s the best part about the move to OFN’s new Washington D.C. headquarters? And the worst part? 
    The best part is being closer to the action. Now that we’re at the center of political activity, it’s easier to meet face-to-face with congressional staff, attend hearings, connect with partner organizations, and so on. We’re also receiving more invitations to join policy conversations that impact the CDFI industry. By increasing our visibility, we’re building stronger relationships with key stakeholders and we’re able to do our job better as advocates for opportunity finance. 
    And the worst part is the commute. Oh, and the humidity. It’s terrible. 
  1. What’s motivated you to stay in the CDFI space for so long?  
    When I first started as an intern, I was intrigued by how OFN and CDFIs were using existing tools and resources to make capitalism work better for underserved populations and ensure capital flowed to communities with limited or no access to it. 
    My professional interest in working in the CDFI industry also dovetailed with my personal background. I grew up poor in a disinvested neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and I wanted to bring communities like mine the resources I never saw when I was growing up. A career in CDFIs combined the things I cared about most. 
    What keeps me motivated to stay in the CDFI space 13 years later is seeing the actual impact of CDFI financing on communities. Every time I go on a site visit, I learn something new, whether it’s about how the CDFI came up with the capital stack to finance the project or how they integrated the community into the project. 
    For example, during OFN’s Small Business Finance Forum this past June, we visited The Hatchery food incubator in Chicago. The CDFIs and other stakeholders involved in the project didn’t just plop down this new facility to “save” the local community. It was a collaborative process. They brought the people they were aiming to serve and included them in the decision-making. 
    This collaborative approach is something a lot of CDFIs do really well. For CDFIs, the community is not an afterthought. They’re the priority.