Brent Newman is the CEO of the Grundy County Housing Authority in Morris, Illinois and a past Skillful Means client. He and his staff provide housing for some of the poorest elderly and disabled residents in their community.
Facing double digit funding cuts, Brent clearly understands a new business model is needed that goes beyond relying on federal funding for his housing operations. Several years ago Brent and his staff chose to use Skillful Means methods to lease-up a new building in record time and earn a sizable developer fee from private funding sources.
Even with continuing cuts (28% in the last 5 years) Brent and the Authority are thriving in Morris. I wanted to know how is he managing this? What is he doing that we could all learn from? I learned:
Undeterred by ridiculous funding cuts, Brent has reached out to connect directly with his local community to create partnerships that have netted many positive benefits for all involved.
In 2012, the Grundy Housing Authority was able to raise significant cash and in in-kind donations to support its work under Brent’s leadership. This from individuals and businesses in Morris, IL with a population of only 13,600!” (Read here to learn how Skillful Means can help you wake up to your own leadership potential.)
In spite of that success, Brent described another setback: “A recent letter from HUD indicated that we’d be facing an 11% reduction in the Housing Authority’s operating subsidy, effective March 1, 2013. And the letter warned the financial impact of the federal ‘sequester’ was NOT a part of the cut!”
Brent went into action, this time appealing to those on the Authority’s email list to come to the local ‘Feeney Liquor Wine and Beer Tasting Event’ being held to benefit the housing authority.
Brent’s email and the event resulted in the Housing Authority being able to make nearly half of the funding cut in one evening.
Brent has made appeals and created partnerships across Grundy County (pop: 50,000). A partnership with the local community college gives the elderly and disabled residents the opportunity to tutor local residents on computers and the Internet. Yes, the public housing residents are training community residents in information technology. Partnerships with the Community Nutrition Network and Center for Independent Living greatly expand service delivery and access across the county.
Residents help clean and provide security for the buildings. They are actively involved in making the housing authority a better organization and business.
As a student of Skillful Means, Brent believes everyone has something to give. He stresses giving. He says “The more I give, the better my life becomes. Skillful Means helped us understand that when we give, we receive, and it sustains our staff, residents, and our partners in many ways.”
Brent clarifies he is not talking about throwing money blindly at a problem. What makes a difference is a real investment that is well considered and heart-felt. He says, “It’s not about money, but a willingness to be involved in something that is bigger than yourself “.
This may sound like a an unusual strategy to ‘manage change’ in a business environment, but Brent feels he has substantial empirical results to prove his strategy is working.
The Grundy Housing Authority scores 97 out of 100 in HUD’s annual evaluation. Their financials are as stable as they can be, given their built-in dependence on federal funding.
The Authority must find resources to fund repairs and replacement of antiquated and expensive building systems over the next few years to maintain the quality of life for his residents and Brent sees the high probability of continual budget cuts. With this awareness, his team is focused on creating sustainable ways to continue serving their clients over the long haul, rather than panicking. It is interesting to consider how this approach could help all types of business who face on-going revenue challenges.
I asked Brent what are the causes and conditions for the housing authority’s success? Here’s what he said in 7 steps:
Recognize that change is necessary.
Believe that change is possible.
Invest in planning and finding a path to get your desired results. For example, we took the time necessary (over a year) to plan for and hire the right person who is focused on sustaining these unique partnerships.
Nothing matters more than caring. We look for and acknowledge a demonstration of caring in every employee.
Servant-hood: We believe and practice that by improving the lives of others, our own lives are also improved and the two are inextricably tied together.
Follow-through: We focus hard on doing what we say, keeping our commitments. People can trust us.
We demonstrate appreciation and gratitude for everyone who is involved with our business EVERYONE from the staff to vendors to single moms to big corporations.
Brent says these steps yield such a different dynamic kind of culture and environment if feels as if things inevitably will succeed. Indeed, these very Skillful Means like principles are practices all organizations may benefit from.
Brent and his staff integrate these principles with very traditional business practices – from fixing the plumbing, to collecting rent, to accounting, even to evictions when necessary.
As a result, individuals, residents, local businesses and the housing authority are thriving in Morris.
There must be problems and obstacles, right?
Brent shares: “If we have a problem that needs resources, and believe me, we have plenty; I see a choice. There can be a fixed pie which limits us, or we can work together to create a bigger pie. Do I know how specifically how we will address all of our future funding issues? No. Do I have confidence that we have found a positive path to help us overcome such obstacles? Yes. It is not a magic bullet, but every day we wake up and focus in this way, things get better.”
Brent Newman is a leader. First he leads himself, always trying to improve; then he leads his organization and the community. He has created a vision that the whole community can participate in and that is dynamic enough that change can be embraced. Brent and his team are Skillful Means Heroes!
Brent and the Grundy Housing Authority are beginning to share their expertise with other housing authorities looking to create successful partnerships with businesses and individual donors in their own communities. Know of an organization that could benefit? Contact Brent at email@example.com, or 815-942-6198.
Do you know a Skillful Means Hero? Please let me know @ firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to feature them on this blog.