How a social entrepreneur built successful organization

Our community needs more social entrepreneurs!

By social entrepreneurs, we mean the definition from author David Bornstein: “What business entrepreneurs are to the economy, social entrepreneurs are to social change. They are driven, creative individuals who question the status quo, exploit new opportunities, refuse to give up and remake the world for the better.”

Don’t our many societal challenges demand that more entrepreneurs try and “remake the world for the better?”

Ed Peterson, the founder and Executive Director of Housing Hope is one of our community’s best social entrepreneurs. Peterson saw a community need 26 years ago and created a lasting and impactful organization to help reduce homelessness.

Housing Hope’s mission is to “promote and provide a continuum of safe, decent, affordable housing and necessary related services for very low and low income residents of Snohomish County and Camano Island.”

I recently sat down with Peterson to discuss what it takes to successfully build a social enterprise. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Question: What advice would you give to a person contemplating starting a non-profit organization?

Answer: It is critical that the nonprofit leader understand the meaning of the double bottom line and transmit this understanding throughout the organization. This means putting in place a strategic development plan for the organization that articulates both margin and mission. Assembling a strong board and staff team that understands business practices and has passion for creating social outcomes through best practices is challenging work, but essential. These two companion concepts need to operate with a well thought out balance to create a healthy, successful nonprofit organization.

Q. What were your biggest challenges when you first started Housing Hope?

A. Challenge number one was funding. We started with a good vision, good management skills and good-faith community connections. Our challenge was to leverage this into financial support. Vision and management can’t take you very far without resources.

Challenge number two was organizational infrastructure. We had no office, accounting expertise, technology, human resource systems or marketing know-how. We needed to create these from scratch to develop the organization. Without reliable operating systems it is hard to gain the confidence of stakeholders (staff, board, volunteers, funders and other stakeholders).

Q. What are the most critical skills, knowledge and attributes required to successfully run a non-profit organization?

A. The ability to create win-win outcomes is a vital skill. This involves understanding the difference between process (the way decision making is managed) and content (the decisions that are made). An essential knowledge base for effective executive leadership is a deep understanding of the relevant internal and external environment factors for organizational mission and programs. This knowledge is essential to fueling the decision making process with the information needed to maximize the collective wisdom of both board and staff in establishing goals and implementing initiatives to achieve the goals.

An executive leadership attribute of importance is “people management” skills. The ability to help the board recruit and retain capable board members and to create an environment conducive to recruitment and retention of staff leaders is important.

No individual person is as smart as a group working collaboratively. A clear understanding of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats emerges through healthy teamwork. This team process surfaces the best ideas for advancing the mission of the organization but more importantly, it achieves “ownership” at a level that empowers the development and problem solving activities of the organization.

Q. What failures have taught you the most and why?

A. Hiring under-qualified persons for key positions in order to save money was a mistake in the early years of Housing Hope. These decisions typically led to performance problems and inefficiencies that put strains on colleagues and organizational systems. We’ve learned over time that strong leaders not only generate efficient management but also develop talent within their teams.

Q. How does your original vision for Housing Hope match with what the organization is doing 26 years later?

A. I knew in 1987 that other organizations around the nation had created successful programs for addressing community social needs. As an experienced social work professional and student of organization and community development I understood that since the “War on Poverty” was launched in the 1960s, many amazing community development organizations had made huge impacts in their communities. I believed that we could create affordable housing solutions and I believed that we could empower residents within this housing. I did not know how this vision would be populated and have been delighted by the many new initiatives achieved by Housing Hope during its 26 years.

Patrick Sisneros is vice president of college services at Everett Community College.

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