ACCES: For busy nonprofit leaders, off-site training opens door to practical solutions

Editor’s Note: See a related story in which ACCES program participants discuss the benefits of working with a professional coach.

By Jill Warren Lucas

Pat Fillipone was feeling overwhelmed. The licensed building contractor and real estate broker brought a great deal of energy to her job as executive director of the Osceola County, Fla., affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. But it was rapidly drained by the degree of real change needed in her community. 

“One in four houses here has been foreclosed upon,” Fillipone says of the once-thriving community of Kissimmee, just south of Orlando, which was a leader in tourism, construction and citrus. “People have moved away or are living in very different conditions.”
Blight has driven down housing values and battered civic pride. She and her team worked hard to improve affordable housing options for their community but were unable to keep pace with growing needs. Through ACCES, a targeted professional development opportunity, she learned that to best serve others she had to get Osceola Habitat’s own house in order.

Fillipone was a participant in the inaugural ACCES training in 2011/12. Achieving Collaborative Capacity for Executive Success was developed for Habitat for Humanity executives by the Institute for Nonprofits at NC State University with design input and support from Habitat for Humanity International. The second leadership program, which combines on-site and online learning, will begin in September.

“I had to stop, take a breath and literally remove myself from the situation so I could focus,” says Fillipone, who operates eight different programs through her small affiliate. “That’s why ACCES was such a blessing. I could actually apply what I learned to our work immediately, which was so refreshing. We brought it all right back to the trenches.”

Tim Bowring, executive director of the Hanover Habitat for Humanity in Mechanicsville, Va., also participated in the transformational learning experience. Bowring built a career of turning around troubled nonprofits and had an offer to go elsewhere. He surprised himself by discovering that he really wanted to stay.

“ACCES came at the perfect time for me,” says Bowring, who expects to break ground this week on a nine-home Habitat neighborhood. “This is totally new territory for me. I was at the point where I usually hired a manager and left. I had to learn how to not be the fireman anymore.”

Bowring’s key takeaway was the concept of Appreciative Inquiry.  “I used a version of this throughout my career, but I didn’t realize it was a science,” he says. “For me, it was a life changer. I have to say that some of the fantastic growth that has occurred here over the past year is directly connected to my involvement with the ACCES program.”

Unlike SWOT analysis, which examines strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, Appreciative Inquiry focuses on identifying effective attributes already in place and leveraging them for additional positive growth.

“When you start focusing on your strengths instead of your weaknesses, your perceptions begin to change,” Bowring says, adding the approach had a significant impact of the willingness of team members to take responsibility for – and to achieve – meaningful goals. “When you drill down and see why things work, you begin to see how other things can work better, too. It’s the way we approach everything now, including evaluation.”

Fillipone, who appreciated the opportunity to network and problem-solve with Habitat peers, also experienced an epiphany through ACCES that changed how the Osceola affiliate operates. The act of stepping away from her office gave her the chance to finally plan strategically.

“We were so focused on providing affordable housing for others that we didn’t realize we were being held hostage by our own facility,” she explains. “By getting our vision and strategic plan on paper, we realized that we were doing everything right: We had a great team and great community support to meet our mission. But our facility was falling down around us. We were losing important donations, sofas and things people really need, because our roof leaked so badly.”

Last week, the Osceola affiliate left its run-down building in a low-traffic location and relocated to one nearby with high visibility, a reliable roof and ample shared parking with a Goodwill store. “By moving, we will be helping more families, because we will have more customers coming in,” says Fillipone.  “It’s a win-win for everybody.” 

The operation needs increased revenue and donations to meet its ambitious goals. Instead of building one house a year, they intend to focus on countywide revitalization.

“We look at painting, landscaping – things that will bring property values up,” she says. “The impact is immediate and inspiring. Neighbors take a look at our investment and begin sprucing things up on their own.”

Fillipone looks forward to establishing a Mission Wall in the new facility that will feature information and photos about improvement projects.

“It’s important for people to see where their donation goes and how shopping at our retail store directly helps their neighbors,” she says. “Everybody knows the Habitat name, but they don’t necessary know all that we do. When they get it, they want to get more involved. It’s really amazing how we can all work together for the betterment of our community.”

Bowring is similarly transparent about Hanover Habitat’s long-term plans.

“When I first rolled it out, everyone rolled their eyes,” he says with a laugh. “But now we have a three-year strategic plan that’s all visual and done in PowerPoint. Anyone can look at it and see where we are, what we’re trying to do and how we’ll get there.

“When they see the plan, you’d be amazed how many people want to help us get there,” Bowring says. “Our work can be stressful, but people really want to be part of the joy.”

For information about Habitat for Humanity International, and ways you can support affordable housing programs, visit its website at

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