What’s your biggest challenge?

So, those who know me are aware that I tend to be a bit of an extravert, so of course, when attending the Habitat Illinois conference last week I was not shy about talking to folks.  But at this conference, every time I met a new person, the first question out of my mouth was:  “So what is the biggest challenge at your organization?”

HFH IllinoisThe Habitat Illinois conference had attendees from 27 Habitat affiliates throughout Illinois.  Over the 1.5 day conference, I had the chance to pop my question to attendees from 19 of the 27 affiliates.  This was in no way an official survey or study by any means, rather just a way to gather some anecdotal information about what was on the minds of leaders from Habitat affiliates throughout the state.  (Plus, it is always comforting as a nonprofit leader to be reminded that you are not the only one facing challenges at your organization… others are fighting the same fight, and we can always learn from one another.)

What was top on the list?

The number one challenge that agency leaders mentioned was attracting qualified applicants for the Habitat homeownership program.

I’ll admit – I was shocked… I was expecting the top response across the board to be money.  That is all I have been reading and hearing about for the past few years from nonprofit directors.  You know, the same song and dance about how nonprofits don’t have enough money, aren’t getting enough grants, aren’t raising enough net profit at fundraisers, etc.  Although fundraising challenges were mentioned a few times, Habitat leaders at the Illinois conference clearly expressed a lack of qualified applicants was the greatest challenge. (16 of the 19 agencies I spoke with pointed to the lack of qualified applicants as their top challenge)

To understand this challenge, it is necessary to first understand Habitat for Humanity.  Habitat builds simple, decent and affordable housing for individuals and families.  To be accepted into the Habitat homeownership program, applicants must meet three criteria:  need for housing, willingness to partner and ability to pay.  Habitat families are expected to contribute sweat equity hours towards the construction of their home and also pay for their home through no-profit mortgages.  Habitat is not a give away program, rather it is a hand up for qualified applicants with the ultimate goal to completely eliminate poverty housing.

Upon reflection, I can understand how a lack of qualified program applicants could create such a challenge for Habitat affiliates.  First, applicants to Habitat must have the ability to pay for housing… this means that they have to have some source of income (either employment or SSI/disability), have decent or repairable credit and not be overwhelmed with debt.  As a result of the recent economic conditions, many families have lost jobs and relied on credit cards to meet basic needs.  With lack of income and high debt, they are not ideal candidates for homeownership.  Secondly, partnering with Habitat takes a significant investment of time from partner families.  Habitat families must contribute sweat equity (volunteer hours) towards their construction of their home.  Families must be in the position to invest time, energy and effort into the program.  So although there are many applicants that have a need for housing, there are far fewer that also have an ability to pay and the willingness to partner.

To overcome the challenge of lack of qualified applicants, Habitat affiliates are offering credit counseling, expanding referral networks and increasing outreach efforts.  There is no quick fix, but I am confident Habitat affiliates will overcome this challenge and continue to make progress in eliminating poverty housing.  If you know of a family that might qualify, you can help by encouraging them to apply.

So, what is the biggest challenge at your organization?  I invite you to add a comment with the top challenge facing your organization.

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About Dr. Sarah Wolin Mackey

Putting theory into practice at nonprofit organizations.
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