Friday, April 14, 2017

Who am I? Why am I here?

One of the most misunderstood moments of political history is the moment that Admiral James Stockdale opened his remarks at the 1992 vice presidential debate with these words. Arguably, of the three men on the stage, he had the most impressive resume, most of it in service and unimaginable sacrifice for his country. However, he had struggled to define himself, or at least make well known his definition of himself as a political actor.

This is why Stockdale opened with these words. He wanted to address just that issue. Unfortunately, all most people remember is the soundbite, which combined with our obsession with youth and looks, caused most people to only remember the question, and totally misunderstand the context of it.

If you think about the question itself, it is one that each individual and each organization must answer. It is a question that seems to fit this time of year, too. Spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) is all about rebirth and renewal, as the world awakes from the slumber of winter. Fittingly, the two Abrahamic traditions that use a solar or partially solar calendar, observe holidays that celebrate their origin stories, as these faiths answer Stockdale’s question.

This is why I love site visits. Now, if you work for a non-profit, you may have just fallen off your chair, and if you don’t, you could be forgiven for not knowing what on earth I am talking about. When a non-profit asks for funding, often funders will ask to come in for a site visit, to see what that non-profit does, rather than just reading a written grant request. It can be stressful, and in some cases, that might be an understatement.

So, why do I love site visits? Even the best organization, working in the service of the most important cause, can fall into the monotony of the day to day work. A site visit causes an organization, and individuals within that organization, to stop and reflect on why they do what they do. Ideally, we should always be ready to answer Stockdale’s question, but to borrow Dr. Samuel Johnson’s phrase, a site visit can concentrate the mind wonderfully.
Ian Redford (playing Dr. Samuel Johnson) in A Dish of Tea with Dr. Johnson
(Courtesy of Bob Workman)
Now, some funders are clearer and some funders are less clear, regarding what they are looking for on their site visit. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas stands out for their clarity in that sense, and serves as a model for others. Here is how a United Way volunteer cut to the chase, on what they are looking to learn when they pay you a visit, “Be on point about why you are requesting the funds, what you will do with the funds, and why you will be successful with those funds.” In other words, what is the need, what is the solution, and what evidence do you have that the solution will successfully address that need?

On Monday, we have the privilege of sitting down with our friends from United Way, and answering these questions regarding the MDHA Flex Fund. I have to admit, I think this is easier with the Flex Fund than with other programs, because of its beautiful simplicity.

Dallas’ homeless population faces a variety of minor but impactful needs, beyond housing and supportive services, that impede them from (making progress in) ending their homelessness. The Flex Fund pays for (solutions to) these needs. We have research and practice from other communities, not to mention the last 20 months in our community that shows the concrete impact of such a program, in the lives of hundreds of people.  
Marsha, Family Gateway
Sarah’s story, which we have told in this blog before, is a typical example. Sarah and her daughter Carol were homeless. With the help of their Family Gateway case manager, Marsha, they obtained a housing voucher, and found an apartment. The landlord required payment of an administrative fee of $149, prior to move in. Their only income being inconsistent child support and SSI, they couldn’t afford it. They were stuck.

Fortunately, their story has a happy ending. Marsha, put in a request to the Flex Fund, it paid the landlord the required administrative fee of $149, and Sarah and Carol moved in to their new apartment. Sarah loves having a place to call home, and it is much easier to care for Carol, who has a disability, in an apartment of their own. Their homelessness ended.

One component United Way added this grant cycle, which I was particularly excited about, was what they call a “visual client flow”. This useful exercise helps the service provider, get out of their organizational comfort zone and vantage point, and look at the program through the eyes of the client. (Click through to see what that looks like.) This is tremendously important, because at the end of the day, it reminds us of our ultimate answer to Stockdale’s question, “Who am I? Why am I here?” We are the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, and we are here to end homelessness for real people, just like we did for Sarah.

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