CDFIs Explained: Supporting Underserved Communities


With the never-ending changes and challenges affecting the U.S. financial landscape, multiple community development entities are helping to counter some of their adverse effects by fostering community development initiatives.

Some examples include Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and Community Development (CD) Banks. These play a significant role in promoting economic growth and inclusion for underserved communities.

couple getting financial help

This article thoroughly explores CDFIs and the institutions that support CDFIs, outlining their significance, objectives, and how they meet capacity building initiative requirements. We also highlight the federal government’s involvement, explaining its role evolution and the numerous related economic development activities available to those who need them.

What is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI)?

Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) are a type of financial institution that provides products and services to financially disadvantaged communities for economic development purposes.

They are essential and critical in promoting inclusion and economic growth to marginalized communities in urban and rural communities countrywide. Legislations like the Community Reinvestment Act help encourage these programs. However, the Community Reinvestment Act is not the only reason for their existence.

CDFI Certification

To become a CDFI, a financial institution must apply for a CDFI certification. This certification ensures that the institution can receive the right federal assistance resources and allows people to benefit from the CDFI fund’s programs.

How did the concept of CDFIs start?

The roots of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) extend to the 1880s, when minority-owned banks began serving economically disadvantaged communities. These organizations provided essential financial services to areas that mainstream financial institutions neglected or could not reach.

As the years progressed, new types of mission-driven financial institutions emerged. For example, the development of credit unions in the 1930s and 1940s offered alternatives to the traditional community bank that had limited services.

Moreover, new community development corporations emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, providing additional resources and support for underserved areas. These institutions gradually paved the way for the rise of nonprofit loan funds in the 1980s, establishing the groundwork for today’s modern CDFI model.

The Riegle Community Development and Regulatory Improvement Act of 1994 recognized the need to support the growing community development finance sector. With that in mind, it established the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund). This fund aimed to promote economic revitalization and community development in low-income areas by investing in and providing assistance to CDFIs.

Since its inception, the CDFI Fund played a substantial role in the growth and impact of CDFIs, enabling them to serve the financial needs of economically disadvantaged communities and contribute to their overall development and prosperity.

Types of CDFIs

Currently, multiple types of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) exist, each catering to the unique needs and challenges economically disadvantaged communities face. We explore their types and roles below.

Community Development Banks

Community Development Banks are for-profit, federal government supported and regulated financial institutions. These institutions have a board of directors that includes community representatives. CD banks provide affordable banking services, loans, and other financial products to economically distressed and underserved communities.

Operating in these communities creates jobs, improves infrastructure, and promotes economic growth. They also help increase access to capital for small businesses, including affordable housing projects and community service facilities.

Community Development Credit Unions

Community Development Credit Unions (CDCUs) are nonprofit financial cooperatives owned and controlled by their members. As is the case with traditional credit unions, they provide financial services such as savings accounts, checking accounts, and loans.

CDCUs only cater to low-income and underserved communities, offering affordable rates and financial education programs to promote inclusion and help people build credit and assets. The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), an independent federal agency, regulates these credit unions.

Community Development Loan Funds

Community Development Loan Funds, or CDLFs, are nonprofit entities that finance community development projects by offering loans and technical assistance to marginalized communities. They facilitate access to affordable housing, promote small businesses, and help establish community service facilities to sustain growth. They also serve as an alternative source of capital for those who cannot access traditional bank financing services by offering flexible terms and underwriting criteria.

Community Development Venture Capital Funds

Community Development Venture Capital Funds offer equity and debt-with-equity investments to small and medium-sized businesses in economically distressed areas. They can be for-profit corporations or nonprofit entities.

By offering long-term capital, they help businesses grow, create jobs, and foster innovation. They also provide technical assistance, mentoring, and business development support to maintain the long-term success of their portfolio companies.

Microenterprise Development Loan Funds

Microenterprise Development Loan Funds are loan funds that provide small-scale loans, or microloans, to entrepreneurs and small businesses that might not qualify for traditional financing. They offer small capital amounts that range from hundreds to a few thousand. These loan funds help low-income people, women, and minority entrepreneurs who need smaller loan amounts and more flexible terms.

Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Consortia

CDFI Consortia are collaborative networks of CDFIs that pool resources, experience, and capital to increase their impact on community development services. They can access larger funding opportunities and share best practices to serve their target communities by working together. They can also provide joint technical assistance and support services, helping to strengthen individual CDFIs that are part of the network.

Understanding Community Development Financial Institutions

The main goal of CDFI fund programs is to provide affordable loans, community development banking services, financial help, and technical assistance to low-income communities. They foster economic development and empower small business owners, minorities, and marginalized communities by offering access to investment capital and other resources with fewer demands than traditional finance institutions.

CDFIs differ from traditional financial institutions because they focus on community development and serving minority communities. They also collaborate with religious institutions, community service organizations, and rely on federal funding and agencies to address the needs of their target populations.

What’s the federal government’s role in CDFIs?

The Federal Reserve Bank supports CDFIs through various initiatives, tax credits, and programs. One such program is the CDFI Fund, which the U.S. Department of the Treasury administers. The CDFI Fund provides financial, technical, and other resources to CDFIs, casting a wider net to help low income people and communities access their services.

In addition to the CDFI Fund, the Federal Reserve Bank supports CDFIs through programs and training initiatives such as:

  • Bank Enterprise Award Program
  • Capital Magnet Fund
  • CDFI Bond Guarantee Program
  • CDFI Equitable Recovery Program
  • CDFI Program
  • Rapid Response Program
  • Native Initiatives
  • New Markets Tax Credit Program
  • Small Dollar Loan Program

These initiatives by the Federal Reserve Bank provide financial incentives and resources for CDFIs and community development entities to invest in eligible community projects, promote economic growth, and create jobs.

How has that federal role changed over time?

The federal government’s role in supporting the CDFI industry changes over time to respond to the changing needs of disadvantaged communities and the growing recognition of the importance of financial inclusion.

Early efforts, for example, provided seed capital and technical assistance to establish and grow CDFIs. With the maturation and evolution of the industry, the government started focusing on building capacity, collaboration, and supporting innovative endeavors.

Recent changes emphasize leveraging private sector investments, regulatory relief, and encouraging partnerships between the CDFI industry and other financial institutions. Examples include minority depository institutions (MDIs) and mainstream banks.

CDFIs’ Role in Financial Inclusion

Financial inclusion is an essential part of CDFI initiatives. Access to affordable financial products and services helps bridge the gap between poor communities and mainstream financial institutions. CDFIs also promote financial knowledge, support small businesses, finance affordable housing activities, and facilitate economic development initiatives.

CDFIs also ensure that economically distressed communities can access essential community services facilities like healthcare centers, schools, and childcare. Their work helps contribute to these communities’ overall well-being and stability. It creates a solid foundation for long-term economic growth.

Business Model

CDFI business models are unique in combining traditional financial services with a strong emphasis on developing and positively impacting the communities they cater to.

They generate revenue by collecting interest and fees on loans, investments, and other financial products. However, they also rely on grants, donations, and especially government funding like the CDFI fund to support their operations.

CDFIs collaborate with organizations like government agencies, nonprofits, and private sector partners to attain their goals. Additionally, they leverage tax credits, guarantees, and other financial tools to attract more investment capital and support their lending activities.

CDFIs Provide Opportunity for All

CDFIs provide real opportunities by addressing the financial needs of underserved communities to help them succeed and promote their economic growth. To do this, they offer access to affordable financial products and services to communities that experienced systematic lockouts from these programs.

By emphasizing their needs and giving them more accessible and affordable ways to prosper, low-income individuals and businesses have access to essential financial tools. These tools were traditionally out of reach for mainstream financial institutions.

Moreover, CDFIs support small businesses owned by women, minorities, and individuals in economically distressed communities. By offering tailored financing solutions, technical assistance, and business planning resources, CDFIs help these entrepreneurs overcome barriers to entry, create jobs, and contribute to local economies.

Another significant aspect of CDFIs’ work is their focus on affordable housing and community development projects. They finance the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing units and invest in community facilities like schools, healthcare facilities, and childcare. These are essential to the well-being and stability of low-income communities and help them worry less about factors beyond their control or that are too expensive to access otherwise.

CDFIs also promote financial education and empowerment by providing resources and training to help people develop financial literacy skills, manage their finances, and build assets. These initiatives contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty and promoting economic self-sufficiency.

By partnering with various stakeholders, such as government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private sector partners, CDFIs leverage resources and expertise to maximize their impact. This creates a ripple effect that extends beyond the immediate recipients, fostering inclusive and resilient communities.

Types of CDFIs

Many community development financial institutions focus on addressing the needs of economically disadvantaged communities. These include community development banks, credit unions, loan funds, and venture capital funds.

Federal agencies like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) regulate community development banks and credit unions. They offer various banking services, from deposit accounts to loans, catering to low-income communities.

Loan funds make affordable housing possible, support small businesses, and help community facilities. On the other hand, venture capital funds offer equity investments that support small businesses and startups in underserved communities.

“Newer” CDFI Resources

As community development financial institutions evolve, multiple resources and programs are emerging to support their growth and impact. Examples include:

CDFIs as Capital Plus Institutions

Sometimes, community development financial institutions are called “Capital Plus” institutions. This is because they provide investment capital, development services, technical assistance, and financial education to support the long-term success of their clients.

This approach allows community development financial institutions to significantly impact low-income and economically distressed communities, promoting economic opportunity and inclusion.

Emergency Capital Investment Program (ECIP)

The Emergency Capital Investment Program (ECIP) is a federal initiative that provides capital to CDFIs and MDIs to support their lending activities after the economic challenges caused by COVID-19. This program helps ensure that these institutions have the resources to continue providing essential financial services to underserved communities, small businesses, and minority-owned businesses during times of crisis.

Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility (PPPLF)

The Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility (PPPLF) is another federal initiative that supports the lending activities of CDFIs and other financial institutions participating in the Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). By providing liquidity to these institutions, the PPPLF enables them to continue offering loans to small businesses needing financial assistance during challenging economic times.

CDFI Rapid Response Program

The Rapid Response Program from the CDFI Fund provides immediate financial assistance during crises or natural disasters. CDFIs can quickly access funds for disaster recovery, emergency relief efforts, and other needs, serving as “financial first responders” for the communities they support.

These newer resources and programs demonstrate how the federal government, private sector, and other stakeholders support the work of CDFIs and promote financial inclusion and economic opportunity. By leveraging these resources, CDFIs can better address the needs of low-income communities nationwide and foster economic development in urban and rural communities.

Hiba Boutary
Meet the author

Hiba Boutary is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She has written finance, legal, real estate, human resources, software, and business content for numerous online publications and websites. Hiba brings a wealth of experience and enthusiasm to her writing, making complex topics accessible to everyone.