A record number of private funders came to share their ideas, experiences and lessons learned from communities across the United States and Canada at the first-ever Funders Institute.
Last week, more than 1600 providers and advocates gathered in Washington, DC for the annual conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The largest gathering of its type ever, this year’s conference had an important new dimension to it: A record number of private funders came to share their ideas, experiences and lessons learned from communities across the United States and Canada. The impetus for this gathering was the first-ever Funders Together to End Homelessness Funders Institute – a series of workshops, conversations and informal activities that linked private foundations, United Ways and corporate giving programs together for the first time in the context of a conference dedicated to ending homelessness.
By all accounts, the Institute was a great success. There were discussions of the challenges of homelessness faced by single adults, families, youth and veterans. There were opportunities to learn about why Rapid Re-Housing seems to be working so well, and why prevention is so hard to get right. We shared the challenges of mobilizing coordinated engagement, and the successes of places like Utah, where combined efforts and hard work have reduced chronic homelessness by 72%.
More important still, private funders who came to the NAEH conference were able to hear directly from housing providers, social service delivery organizations, government agencies and vocal advocates about the unique things that private funders can bring to the table in collective efforts to end homelessness. What they told us may surprise you.
It isn’t always about the money. Whether you have the remarkable assets of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or The Home Depot Foundation, or the more the more modest resources of Upstate New York’s Wilson Foundation, the amount of money the private sector brings to the table will, consistently, pale in comparison to what government systems are dedicating to ending homelessness. So, more important than the money, we heard, can be the remarkable capacity of our sector to serve as convener, bringing together often disparate systems and players to stimulate collaborations that yield unified approaches to thorny problems and integration of funding streams that promote collective action. Check out, for example, what funders are doing in Los Angeles or Houston.
Hand-in-hand with the role of convener, we heard that the private sector can also be effective advocates, amplifying the voices of our partners at the local, state and national stages as we elevate the issues, promote visibility of key problems, and call for solutions that can meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Here’s just one example of how this has been done around the issue of youth homelessness.
But most important, perhaps, is what we heard consistently at almost every workshop at the NAEH conference: Private funders can help to stimulate rapid movement towards the most innovative, promising practices that are emerging in the field. By embracing risks ourselves, we can encourage our partners in the change process to risk moving away from current practices that, while familiar, may not be producing the most effective results for people who are homeless while simultaneously promoting the most efficient use of scarce resources. Examples of this are already emerging across the nation: Domestic violence programs are implementing Housing First programs for survivors with astonishing results. Systems of care are being transformed across state geographies. Communities are focusing on the needs of the most severely disabled, chronically homeless populations.
And we’re only just getting started. As more and more private funders discover that the highest and best use of their resources may not be supporting the status quo, but stimulating the most promising practices at the cutting edge of knowledge from the field, we can challenge each other to think about whether what we are doing is consistently in the best interests of people who are homeless. This role can be truly catalytic. In an era of continuing government budget crises, resources will remain insufficient to end homelessness if we continue our business as usual. We have no alternative but to figure out collectively how to make the best possible use of the full range of resources that can be put into play. As one government official put it, innovation is the only hope we have of truly “bending the curve” on the graphs of homelessness such that the numbers dramatically go down. We owe nothing less to those in our nation who will go to sleep tonight without a roof over their heads.
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.