“When you go into a community or organization,” one of the people I mentor asked me the other day, “what are the first things you look for to know if people have bought into ending homelessness?”
There are three things:
It all starts with leadership for me. I am not just talking about position power that comes from titles and reinforced through hierarchy. No, what I am looking for is a leader-full organization that has leaders in all sorts of positions who have a shared vision of what it takes to end homelessness. In these types of communities and organizations, they explicitly talk about their shared guiding principles and standards of service. They seek accountability and marry that with realistic optimism. They are collective problem-solvers who steadfastly stay engaged in the mission without being distracted by so many other things that could take them off course.
The importance of leadership (and the frequent absence of it) is one of the main reasons why we started the Leadership Academy on Ending Homelessness a few years ago. Leaders succeed when they are engaged in self-knowledge (the kind you don’t necessarily find on bookshelves), have awareness of others and how others impact them, and when they are systems thinkers. Of all of the conferences and such that a person can go to in any given year, at least some time and attention should be paid to investing in leadership development. If you are interested in the Leadership Academy, you can find more information and register for it here.
The second thing I know needs to be in place for proof that people have bought into ending homelessness is data. And I mean an unrelenting almost obsessed fixation on data. Not just any data – the right data. What do I mean?
Well, it is easy to go to the three performance metrics that matter most: i) Length of homelessness; ii) Positive destinations out of homelessness; iii) Returns to homelessness.
But I think we can go beyond this and still not end up too cute or in the weeds too far. I like data to have context. Show me how you are faring compared to previous time intervals or in comparison to other organizations or communities of comparable size and volume of funding. That is a big part of it.
The next important thing related to data for me are other elements of quality. For example, show me what the data looks like from different acuity bands, or conduct a gender or race analysis of performance using the data - as examples.
Finally, related to data, I look for a community or organization to demonstrate that they are making adjustments and improvements to performance based upon the data that they have acquired – and that they are using THEIR data on a REGULAR basis. THEIR as in they have accepted ownership of the data and what it says and are not waiting for someone else to interpret their data. REGULAR as in there are preset intervals for a data analysis plan to be activated.
Then there is morale which seems more intangible than the other three, though to me there are clear indicators that provide evidence of morale being high or low or somewhere in between. The first thing I inquire about is staff retention and staff acquisition, which is really getting at whether the staff tend to stay in their jobs and whether the organization or the work within the community attracts top tier talent to available positions. The next thing I look at is burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. I want to know how the work is impacting those that are doing the work.
By way of morale, I am sensitive to the language that people use when talking about the work and the people that they serve. Are they trying to impose their values and beliefs on others? Are they frustrated, angry or resentful of program participants? Do they legitimately engage in solving problems, or are they more interested in naming problems without solving them or looking to others to always be the answer?
Also, with morale, I look to see if people feel positively challenged by the work itself. This helps say something about commitment and professional development and growth. There is ample proof that when people feel challenged by the work they are more inclined to stay involved and engaged in the work.
Finally, for morale, I look to whether there is a collective, collaborative approach to the work. Does ending homelessness translate to every position on the front line? Or is that something the mucky-mucks on the 6th floor talk about in the admin building but seems foolish to those that are engaged with people who are homeless daily? If it isn’t translating to the frontline, there is a problem with morale.