Fahe Members Virtually Gather at Spring Retreat to Talk Strategy for “Building on Our Foundation”

2020 Challenged the Fahe Network in Ways No One Could Predict. But Our Members Not Only Rose to Meet the Challenge—They’re Emerging Even Stronger.

May 11, 2021

The annual Fahe Spring Retreat is a time for our Members to gather and engage in candid, productive conversations amongst each other and our staff teams.  For this year’s virtual retreat, our Members were challenged to reflect on the progress and pitfalls our communities have encountered over the last year and think about strategies for the Network to continue “Building on our Foundation” for the future.

Day one of the event began with a presentation of a state advocacy case study from Fahe AmeriCorps Member Sarah Weintraub.  Her presentation demonstrated how housing organizations in South Dakota coalesced and mobilized around the idea of creating a state-funded housing trust fund.  In the case study, the housing groups, led by Habitat for Humanity’s state affiliate, reexamined their typical messages to policymakers about housing affordability and instead built a compelling case around residential infrastructure for South Dakota’s growing workforce. By tying housing to broader business competitiveness concerns, housing advocates were able to redefine their agenda in a more persuasive context and achieved wider buy-in from a diverse array of business, economic, and community development stakeholders.  As a result, the case study concluded, the housing coalition successfully enacted that state’s most comprehensive home financing program in its history.  It also demonstrated that helping families access homes that they can afford is not just a humanitarian issue, but also a policy of critical importance for a community’s ability to attract and retain workers to sustain its businesses and employers.

Following the advocacy department’s presentation, staff from Fahe Member Community Housing Partners (CHP) gave an insightful presentation on the importance of making operational changes within an organization in order to foster better outcomes. As CHP’s CEO Janaka Casper explained, “You need to first focus internally in order to be successful externally.”

Janaka Casper related that CHP’s focus on being an “employer of choice” has helped them attract and retain top talent as a large organization with around 400 staffers. As CHP shifted to remote work during the pandemic, they sought out employee feedback and invested in IT initiatives to empower staff success. These tech investments included distributing smartphones and laptops and streamlining communications onto a single platform for phone, text, and instant message compatibility. Additionally, Casper noted, CHP offers internal training opportunities, tracks employee engagement, and focuses on wellness priorities to achieve high rates of employee retention and productivity. Casper’s team emphasized that both small and larger organization can use these same methods to strengthen their organizations internally, thereby hastening progress and workflows towards achieving larger strategic goals.

With day two’s presentations transitioning to updates from across the Network, the Fahe Membership department introduced the newly-formed Alabama caucus and provided video reports from each of Fahe’s five state caucus chairs. As Fahe CEO Jim King opened his State of the Membership address, he commended attendees for their resilience in weathering an exceptionally difficult prior year while maintaining and even increasing the critical services and investments they provide amid a pandemic-driven surge in demand. King further noted the potential of the recently-passed American Rescue Plan to increase the availability of federal relief funds for states and localities in the region.  If Fahe Members can effectively mobilize to access and deploy these funds, he asserted, the new law may offer a unique opportunity to pursue novel programs and services to benefit communities that have been hit especially hard by the economic downturn.

The second day continued with an in-depth analysis of how the coronavirus pandemic had disproportionately impacted many already-distressed rural communities in the region and offered useful insights into how some Members had responded. Leading a panel discussion, Jim King offered thoughts on the impact of the past year and engaged in open dialogue with Andy Kegley of HOPE, Inc., Dave Clark of Woodlands Development Group, and John Niederman, the current Fahe Fellow. They each agreed that the pandemic has challenged our Network in new and unpredictable ways, but struck an optimistic tone in how Members have risen to meet the challenge and filled critical gaps in community services that were stretched to their limits.

Clark’s organization reacted to the pandemic by investing in more boots on the ground and hiring trained personnel in some of West Virginia’s most distressed communities. Noting the area’s widespread lack of broadband access, he revealed how Woodlands has even begun developing its own fiber network to eliminate dependency barriers on traditional corporate carriers.  Instead, his daring and innovative approach seeks to directly finance and build out hardline infrastructure straight to the homes and families that need it most.  Likewise, Kegley reflected on how the Network can capitalize on incoming federal funds in order to better position the region for future-facing improvements like broadband and infrastructure upgrades over the next decade, not just in the short-term.

Similarly, Niederman ruminated on the potential scope of nonprofits during such extraordinary times and urged them to resist the temptation to contract, rather than grow, their roles during a downturn. Nonprofits, he explained, can explore many options to expand into revenue-generating social enterprises that help them fund greater progress towards their larger mission. Reflecting on the incoming federal funds, Clark concluded, “It’s just a great reminder of how particularly well-positioned we are to help target resources to where they really need to go.”

Lastly, Ralph Perrey, Executive Director of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, joined Jim King for reactions to the previous discussions and some final remarks. He concurred with Niederman’s observation that Fahe Members can bring on-the-ground expertise to effectively connect funds and assistance with the people and places that really need it.  He further elaborated that his agency, and others like it, would be counting on the Fahe Network’s partnership to raise awareness for rent and utility assistance opportunities for families experiencing hardship from the pandemic.

Fahe Members have proven themselves to be indispensable lifelines for their communities. Even during a once-in-a-century pandemic, they have been instrumental in keeping many families afloat as they face housing insecurity, food shortages, health challenges, joblessness, and much more.  “Each of your organizations and each of you as a leader have never been more important than you are right now in your community.” King concluded, “We can build the American Dream for all of our neighbors, and that feels more possible to me now than ever before.”

Fahe’s Annual Meeting is currently planned for September 21-23, 2021 at the Meadowview Conference Resort and Convention Center in Kingsport, TN.