Homeless and housing programs are growing up. Thank goodness.
Homeless and housing programs are growing up. Thank goodness. We are seeing a retrenchment of individual projects touting their self-proclaimed best practices, and an emerging era of systems-based approaches, based upon evidence, that actually work at ending homelessness.
Part of this stems from the early adopters and risk takers that radically decided to help the right homeless person/family get to the right program at the right time to end their homelessness instead of each program thinking they had to be all things to all people. Part of it stems from the HEARTH Act, which squarely places a systems-based lens into how homeless and housing programs are organized.
And no doubt part of it stems from the fact that we have finally realized that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”–that we can actually prove that some approaches to ending homelessness work better than others…that a big heart is only as good as the big head it is attached to.
What role do funders play in all of this? How can funders drive the change agenda forward? How do we align funding objectives so that on a system-wide basis there is a united front to invest in change and spend on impact?
The role for funders is a big one. Evidence only goes so far in helping to explain to service providers that one approach to service delivery may be better than another. Some service providers will only change if it means they have to follow the dollars in a new direction. Funders are a massive, important change catalyst in the transformation of services to people experiencing homelessness. When philanthropy is aligned to government investments, the impact of funders exponentially increases, as the community sees its investors aligned in the same direction.
In my work with various funding tables, I recommend the following actions with the service provider community or specific projects that they support:
- Can the service provider, in three sentences or less, and without using any jargon or acronyms, outline the problem that their service aims to solve? I recommend this exercise because it encourages service providers to get better at naming their intended service recipient and allows the funder to better understand the population being served and for which specific purpose. In examining responses from service providers, I look for clarity of intent, understanding of proven practices, and a determination in ending homelessness all within this short three-sentence response.
- Aside from anecdotes and individual success stories, can the service provider articulate the difference that they are making in people’s lives, beyond a quantitative metric of the number of people served or number of activities undertaken? I suggest this because funders need to know that the lives of people improve over the longer-term and that the service provider is engaged with practices that have longer-term sustainability in life change. Too many service providers have become so fixated on the quantity of work they do that they have sacrificed quality of work. It is better, in the pursuit of ending homelessness, to have service providers work with a smaller group of clients intensely and permanently end his/her homelessness, than working with a larger group peripherally and having an inordinate number of those individuals never end their homelessness or else return to his/her homelessness in the not so distant future.
- Pulling together a community roundtable with the explicit intent of having a discussion of what funding should cease. Why? Because too often programs exist until funding runs out instead of the strategic discussion of what isn’t working well and where money should stop being invested. Only after that discussion can the discussion of where to re-direct the money be had. We need to rely on proof rather than what just feels right.
- Investing in an independent review of the service delivery system, unbiased by local politics or legacies of particular investments. These independent reviewers are not looking to evaluate any specific program. But rather, they are examining the inter-connectivity that exists or does not exist in service delivery pathways so that funders can best understand how their investment is being knit together for the greatest impact and where improvements can be made.
- Assembling a coordinated approach to investment across funding sources so that, collectively, funders are investing in change and spending on impact. This can result in a realignment of investment in sectors of services rather than individual projects. It also repositions the community to examine change and results across all activities, not just by specific funders.
With competing interests and advocacy efforts on the part of service providers–especially larger, well-established, politically connected ones–funders can be in a difficult position to objectively assess what is happening and what needs to happen to get the most for the investment being made. The actions outlined above are a starting point to making that happen in a fairer manner. It also allows funders to build upon the strengths of what is happening in the community, linked to the best interests of the end users of services.
Iain De Jong, an expert in housing and homelessness programs and service system design, is president & CEO of OrgCode Consulting and a faculty member in the Graduate Planning Programme at York University. Visit www.orgcode.com or www.facebook.com/orgcode to read his blog and learn more about his work. You may also reach out to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org