“We are Not Venture Capitalists”

This is a quote written on a white board in the office of a Continuum of Care that I am doing some work with. I saw it on a recent visit and loved it. In some way, shape or form I think all of us that have worked as a funder in our career have had similar experiences with people calling out of the blue looking for money to open a shelter or start an outreach program or begin a meal program or build housing or start a drop-in or something similar. When I was a funder working in government it would seem that once or more per month I’d get a call or email from some organization or person I had never heard of seeking funds for a housing or homeless program.

I don’t know enough about the people who make these calls out of the blue to form a comprehensive opinion, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that they are well-intentioned and mean well, but generally without extensive (or any) experience in delivering homeless and housing services.

I think the fact that calls are received seemingly out of nowhere by people and organizations that have no real experience in receiving funds or delivering programs says a lot about service provision to people that experience homelessness. Allow me to make five very general observations about what this may mean:

  1. The “Outside World” doesn’t see what is happening in homeless and housing service delivery as a professional service delivery system, methodically planned and strategically funded.
  2. Funding is not promoted in the public eye as competitive, strategic investment.
  3. The general public thinks anybody can do this work.
  4. Housing as the solution to homelessness has not been promoted enough – most of the time fund-seekers are looking to operate emergency services.
  5. Ending homelessness is a business; but too often it is still seen as a charitable response.

What can be done about it? Well, I am not so naïve to think the calls out of the blue will stop completely. There will continue to be well-intentioned people seeking money to assist with their campaign to – most often – feed, shelter or clothe homeless people. But we can improve our messaging on what is happening in our community. Some suggestions:

  1. Link and plaster references to your 10 Year Plan, its intent and achievements in just about every document and medium that you have at your disposal (assuming the Plan is up to date and being put into action). Anybody who calls out of the blue should be asked how what he/she is aiming to have funded is aligned with the local Plan to End Homelessness.
  2. Talk about “strategic investment in ending homelessness” not just funding to homeless programs. Ask the person who calls out of the blue how what they are requesting aligns with the other “x” thousands/millions of dollars in investment in the system already and how any contribution to them will help leverage additional success.
  3. Use words like “professional” to describe the types of services being delivered to people that are homeless. Ask the person who calls about their experience, expertise and education. Ask them what they think the main currents of thought and practice are in homeless service delivery and how what they want to do contributes to proven practices to end homelessness.
  4. Housing. Housing. Housing. If the conversation isn’t about housing as the solution in all that you do you are ceding ground to those that think emergency responses are the answer to homelessness. It’s okay to ask people that call you out of the blue how what they want to do helps people achieve and become stable in housing. This doesn’t mean, say, that your community is anti-shelter. But let’s assume they want to open another one…ask them why they think another shelter is needed and how that shelter will help people move successfully into housing.
  5. Use data appropriately on websites, newsletters, press releases, etc to speak about progress relative to targets…this is the parlance of business…the desire to measure results. Consider asking the caller what their business plan is to optimize the likelihood for success, the measures they think they would need to capture in service delivery and their approach to evaluating what they are doing to continuously improve their response.

All of these questions are also things you can put into an annual funding request for proposals; or if you are a service agency, areas that you can address in your funding submission even if your funders did not ask for it. These are examples of five areas where our ability to demonstrate excellence in service delivery goes a long way to distance the work of ending homelessness as just another hand-out. The “hand-out” is the furthest thing from the work done the past couple of decades to have solution-focused interventions pin-pointed at the need to invest in ending homelessness.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong