I first met Becky, at the time Kanis, Margiotta at a Homeless or Housing conference, over two decades ago in Phoenix Arizona. I was new to nonprofit leadership having spent most of my life as a home builder. Becky, like I am sure she did most people, knocked my socks off. She was smart, brash, honest, and ready to take on the world’s problems. And if you weren’t going to help her, she just wanted you to get out of way. She was a West Point Graduate, jumped help out of perfectly good airplanes, openly gay, when that wasn’t quite as well accepted as it is now, and was pretty sure she could do just about anything she put her mind to. And it didn’t take much imagination to see her doing it.
She was to become very quickly the leading advocate for the “Housing First” initiative as the face and spokesperson for the“100,000 Homes Campaign”. The basic idea of the campaign was if we could get just the homeless into housing, a lot of the other issues that we associate with the homeless problem would solve themselves and it would end homelessness. It turned out not to be quite that simple, but more about that later.
In a matter of months Becky had achieved Rock Star status in the nonprofit community. Acolytes were lining up to follow her lead. And for more than a decade “housing first” was the only solution that had any traction. Becky had made her mark, and even appeared on 60 Minutes to explain what she was doing.
After she wound up the 100,000 Homes project she did a lot of public speaking at nonprofit events, consulted and eventually opened the Billion’s Institute, which teaches and coaches management skills for profit and nonprofit groups. And like everything else she has done she has gone in full bore, studying with and under industry and academic leaders to put a highly respected and effective curriculum together.
And now she has written what she promises will be her first book, “Impact With Integrity” capsulizing what she teaches at the Institute. And it is classic Becky, good humored, wise, and inspiring. And even though it goes into great detail on how to make relationships work better, it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. And I highly recommend it to anyone in any kind of personal or business relationship. Much of what she covers you probably haven’t thought through before.
It makes sense that her book is about what she has decided to spend her life doing, but I can’t help but wish that firebrand I met two decades ago would have tackled the three issues that are keeping the nonprofit community from making as she so aptly puts it “ a dent in the world.” Those three issues are the monopolistic tendencies of large nonprofits or NGOs, Non Profit “insanity”, and a lack of effort and skills exhibited by those who run small nonprofits. Until the nonprofit community address these issues no matter how good the relationships work in every organization real progress will be stunted at best.
If there ever was confirmation that the old saw “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, is true, it’s how nonprofits approach solving problems. Homelessness is a very good example. for two decades “Housing First was the credo everyone lived by, even when the homeless problem worsened nothing changed. And when questioned the standard response was “you need to offer more services with the housing”. That was the answer even when the selling point on “housing first” was those services won’t be as critical once we get them in housing. Sadly, and I bought in, the results everyone hoped for just did not materialize. It just didn’t move the homeless meter in the right direction. When a plan doesn’t work the nonprofit community needs to quit beating it to death. Religiously based “Missions” have been housing homeless for decades with an emphasis on religious teaching and conversion as a means to help give the homeless a “hand up and out of homelessness.” Their long term success rate is abysmal. We need new approaches to old problems and we need to admit when a plan doesn’t work. Failing in the for profit world is how you find answers. That principle, of recognizing failure and changing course has to be adopted by the nonprofit community.
In the early 1900’s it became obvious that as less companies controlled more of a sector of the economy the quality of their products declined and the consumers cost rose. Monopolies don’t work; they stifle competition and creative thinking. But for some reason we have decided the bigger the nonprofit the better. There are many good examples but probably none better documented than Johnathan Katz’s 2013 book The Big Truck Went By, where he chronicles how the large nonprofits and NGOs squandered billions of dollars in donations after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. They had very little oversite, coordination, accountability, and when all was said and done left Haiti with at least as many problems as when they arrived. Monopolies’ don’t work. They stifle creative problem solving competition encourages, limit accountability, and create an environment where the continued existence of the monopoly far- out ways any mission they have pledged to serve.
For more than two decades we worked as volunteers for small nonprofits in Flagstaff AZ and even provided over ¾ of a million dollars’ worth of funding for those nonprofit. We had a chance to work hand in hand wth scores of small nonprofits and the most surprising thing we learned was that more than a third of those nonprofits are run by paid staff that have very few of the skills necessary to do their job or the work ethic to learn those skills. And until nonprofit boards change those numbers, by better screening applicants and realizing caring about the mission is not the only requirement to lead a nonprofit, the chances of their nonprofits really having an impact are slim and none. I realize this is a pretty small sample, but I can see no reason to assume only Flagstaff has this problem.
Becky is the perfect leader to speak and address these issues with the nonprofit community. She has built the trust and following needed to help navigate through the treacherous waters that addressing these issue will take. A lot of feelings will be hurt, but Becky has spent the time and has the training to get through that. If it’s not done our nonprofit community will continue to be less effective than it can be and funding sources will dry up leaving only the large ineffective NGO who thrive on taxpayer funding to provide even less imaginative and self-serving possible solutions . I can only hope one of Becky’s next books tackles these critical issues.
In the meantime pick up either or both of these books, they are great reads and offer meaningful insights. But know that, in the long term for our nonprofit community to lead the way in the future, deep structural changes need to be made. The nonprofit community and its leaders need to start asking the hard questions, admitting when a plan fails and learning from that failure, and the dismantling of many of the sacred cows that stifle new thinking needs to start now.