Habitat grows in tough times

Sylvia Oberle
Sylvia Oberle

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Instead of retrenching during the distressed economy of the past three years, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County looked for ways to expand.

The affiliate sought and secured $2 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding, dollars that allowed it to build 45 houses, seven more than it typically would have built over two years.

It also was one of the first affiliates to adopt a new initiative developed by Habitat for Humanity International that encourages local affiliates to move beyond their traditional model of building new houses by also rehabilitating and repairing existing houses.

And it formed new partnerships with Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina and with the Datamax Foundation and Reynolds American Foundation that generated new funding and helped serve more people.

“Don’t necessarily rush to cut back programs in a tough economy,” says Sylvia Oberle, executive director of the Winston-Salem-based affiliate. “Be creative about looking at new opportunities for funding those programs” by looking at the “nexus” between existing programs and the needs of potential partners and funders.

Formed in 1985, Habitat Forsyth has built 300 houses and helped fund the construction of 100 houses in El Salvador.

The affiliate began shifting to its new business model before the crash of the capital markets three years ago because it recognized “it was hard to transform neighborhoods without changing the housing conditions in a neighborhood,” says Oberle, who joined Habitat as executive director in February 2006.

A former city editor for the Winston-Salem Journal, Oberle later worked as executive director of the Center for Community Safety at Winston-Salem State University.

“I’d worked in crime prevention, education and improving schools throughout my career,” she says. “Those very good efforts can’t really take hold if neighborhoods are still run down and housing conditions are still substandard.”

So, before the economic downturn, the agency adopted the new business model developed by Habitat International that adds renovations and repairs to the traditional role of building houses.

While building a house requiring raising $65,000, renovations or repairs to a house typically cost $5,000 to $10,000.

“No longer do we only have one product to offer donors and prospective sponsors,” Oberle says. “Now we can help with less and the overall impact on the community is much more tangible and direct.”

And when the economy collapsed, Habitat secured federal funds that became available to stabilize neighborhoods and that replaced dollars that were tougher to raise from sponsors.

Getting those funds also required that Habitat step up its production when other groups were cutting back.

“Sometimes you have to evolve to counter tough economic times,” Oberle says.

The grim economy also prompted Habitat to be more creative in seeking partners, she says, specifically by looking for connections “between your work and other people’s work.”

Habitat, for example, developed a four-year partnership with Goodwill that provides job training for Habitat homeowners, a program funded with grants of $250,000 and $75,000 from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

And when it found that homeowners participating in training programs designed to help them improve their skills and increase their earning potential, mainly single women, were reluctant to look for jobs in a tough economy, it secured support from the Women’s Fund at the Winston-Salem Foundation to provide motivational counseling and mentoring for women.

Habitat also secured a total of $40,000 in grants from the Datamax Foundation and Reynolds American Foundation for a Habitat fund that supports an effort to improve graduation rates for carpentry students at the High School Career Center in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

Young people who completed the carpentry program and helped build a Habitat house had graduation rates of nearly 100 percent, Oberle says.

In the face of its new strategy and expanded workload, she says, Habitat also worked to be more open with its staff and board about the challenges it faced.

“You have to communicate with people, thank them, tell them you appreciate what they’re doing,” Oberle says. “But you don’t set up a climate of doom and gloom and cutbacks. You set up a climate of growth.”

The tough economy also has prompted Habitat to reach out to people who are out of work and might want to volunteer, and to work harder to reach new donors and to steward and thank existing donors.

Once a week, for example, Habitat volunteers phone donors just to thank them, and on the official acknowledgement Habitat provides to donors Oberle adds a personal note to any donor who give more than $100.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, contributions to Habitat grew 8 percent, compared to the previous year.

“In these kinds of times, you can’t afford to lose donors,” Oberle says, “and you have to try harder to reach donors and enhance the donation.”

[Oberle will lead a webinar on Sept. 21 sponsored by the Philanthropy Journal that will look at how to survive, not just thrive, in a tough economy. To register, click here.]

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