New School News

Common Interest: Communities Profit With The Milano Finance Lab

Milano Finance Lab director Blaise Rastello meets with community members at Harlem's Minisink Townhouse. Photo by Marty Heitner.

In early 2010, Habitat for Humanity of Washington, DC, faced a challenge. Although the organization saw plenty of need in the Capitol area, its finances limited it to building only seven houses a year. Without a financial blueprint for growth, Habitat’s ability to serve more families was hampered.

Enter the Milano Finance Lab, a graduate student workshop within the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. Students enrolled in the Milano Finance Lab learn by doing, taking lead roles in partnerships with community organizations to develop innovative, sustainable financing plans.

Students in the lab threw themselves into a year of study not only of Habitat of DC, but of similar organizations in other cities,, said Blaise Rastello, director of the Milano Finance Lab. During that year, they were able to create a financing structure that increased by five times the number of houses Habitat could build while requiring only the hiring of two additional full-time staff.,

The partnership with Habitat is just one of many successes the Milano Finance Lab has had over its ten years. Founded in 2001 as the Community Development Finance Project, the lab brings a unique approach to the challenges of nonprofit and community financing, merging policy development, deal-making, strategies, and organizational management. By taking a lab-based class or serving as Finance Lab Fellows, participants learn the nuts and bolts of development financing, including budgeting, cost-benefit and feasibility analysis, government relations, and community management.

To really make a difference, we have to be bilingual, speaking the languages of both Wall Street and the community streets,, said Rastello. It’s about finding solutions to social issues and then framing them as business opportunities.,

In the past five years alone, students involved in the lab have contributed over 17,000 hours of service to more than 24 community partners across the country, including the Urban League of New York, the Greater Camden Partnership, Harlem’s Minisink Townhouse community center, and New Orleans’ Community Development Capital. Partners for 2011’2012 projects run the gamut from Los Angeles’ Skid Row Housing Trust to Coney Island USA.

After a decade of community partnerships, the Milano Finance Lab is planning to branch out. Right now, we’re starting to look at ways to expand offerings like executive education and consulting services,, said Rastello. We have a lot of experience guiding other organizations to growth, now it’s time to do some growing of our own.,

A decade since its founding, The Milano Finance Lab continues to foster cutting-edge approaches to the challenges of nonprofit and development financing.


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