Expect nonprofits to employ best practices

I work for South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity. A few months back, I was talking with a fellow employee in our shop while he was building 250 birdhouses to give away at Sand in the City. He had made a series of jigs, so that if you started on one end with a piece of plywood you came out the other end with a birdhouse. Well, almost.

I asked Don, who’s our master carpenter, what the threshold was for using a jig, how many units, 10, 20? “More than one,” Don said, “that way you make the piece right if you’re making two or 200.”

Most of my woodworking projects turn into firewood. I’ve made kindling from some of the best wood our forests offer. My last project, a coat rack, was desecrated. Seriously, a flat piece of wood that needed the corners trimmed and some beveling and I destroyed it, horribly. And then I burned the evidence in the wood stove. I shouldn’t even own a router. Really, I shouldn’t.

So when Don gave me his answer I wasn’t terribly surprised to be off 10-fold. He’s a woodshop expert, whereas I make kindling. But you expect to learn something useful when you ask an expert.

Using experts: that’s a philosophy that we apply to every aspect of our work here at Habitat. Many businesses take this idea for granted, as without expert practices tight margins rapidly evaporate into the red.

However, non-profits that don’t utilize best practices often suffer no consequences and therefore see no need for change. This is challenging, because the business of most non-profits is the success or failure of another human being. Our promise to those we serve should always be our best work based on best practices.

Why demand best practices? It pays off. The successful management of our two retail Habitat Stores covers every single penny of our Building Program’s operational costs. Our Retail Operations Manager, Caleb, runs the most profitable Habitat Stores in the state of Washington, beating Seattle and Tacoma combined.

Supporting our own salaries and other operational expenses allows us the best practice of using every dollar donated to our mission to go into unit construction, which our families can then call home. Our focus on financing construction has, in turn, allowed us to undertake the largest development we’ve ever built.

We build smart and use a state-of-the-art development style, the “cottage community design standard” so that we can build more houses, all with yards and more open space than traditional neighborhoods. This approach allows us to serve more families in a planned community built with affordability, safety and security in mind. And, we didn’t come up with the idea, we just followed expert advice.

My construction superintendent, Len, and I have begged, borrowed or stolen many, many ideas for the advanced designing, building and insulating of our sustainably constructed units. We could build more and cheaper homes faster. Instead, with ADA access throughout and full-house fire suppression, I think we build one of the best, safest, most accessible and efficient homes in Thurston County.

And we do this because the most important thing we put into our home is a family.

Every day at Habitat we look at what we do with an eye to how we can make it better, more efficient or more cost-effective for the families we serve. I think that in this time of ongoing fiscal austerity, the community should really understand what they are buying when their tax money is awarded to a non-profit. Is your money supporting a solution, a political agenda, or a pipedream?

The community should ask that best practices and the competent delivery of evidence based programming be required in the contracts of all community supported work. We already do this with doctors, engineers, heavy equipment operators, lawyers, teachers, dentists and bus drivers. Shouldn’t we want the same for those who take responsibility for our very fragile and often damaged brothers and sisters?

Finally, I would like to mention the best practice of hospitality. The Salvation Army, which has endured lengthy criticism from those who disagree with how they run their mission, has agreed to provide cold-weather shelter, again, to many of our county’s unhoused and freezing during the upcoming winter months. This is not part of their standard offering, but when other providers (often their critics), failed to produce new shelter beds, the Salvation Army, focusing on their mission of service and self-improvement, offered to open their doors to welcome those who will be in need.