Back to School: Taking a Campaign to End Homelessness to the Next Level

by Janice Elliott September 9, 2015

The U-Hauls are back and the bookstores are packed. If you live or work in a college town, you know that can mean only one thing – the summer is officially coming to an end and college students are back! Our New Haven office is a stone’s throw away from Yale so I’ve become accustomed to the ebb and flow of the university seasons.

Breakthough Thinking CoverThough my college days are long gone, there’s a powerful dog-eared book I bought years ago that lives permanently on a side table in my office, Breakthrough Thinking for Nonprofit Organizations: Creative Strategies for Extraordinary Results. Again and again, I turn to it when I’m trying to figure out a different way at looking at an issue. One of my favorite chapters speaks to the natural lifecycle of a nonprofit: the arc of growth, stability and decline that happens to an organization over a period of years. The authors found that while an organization is growing and things are going well – but just before it gets too comfortable with the status quo – it’s time to step back, assess, and do something bold that will change the natural trajectory and propel the organization upward to a dramatically improved level of performance – what they call the “second wave.”

From what I’ve observed, social issue campaigns also have their own lifecycles, and as the director of a foundation that supports a variety of social change campaigns, I’ve been curious about whether the same rules might apply.

Like a nonprofit, a campaign starts with ambitious goals and lots of enthusiasm and, if done well, puts good structures in place for organizing and strategizing, and then goes on to generate positive outcomes that add fuel to the upward climb. So, under the second wave theory, it’s actually at that point, when things are going well, that it’s time for a “reboot” – a reflection and reconnection with the people who believe so dearly in the campaign’s goals. This opens the way to the second wave, avoiding what might otherwise be an eventual leveling off in enthusiasm and instead increasing the campaign’s potential for impact.

Coordinating Collaboration to End Homelessness Report CoverThis theory is now being put into practice in Reaching Home, the campaign to end homelessness in Connecticut led by a collaborative of advocacy organizations, government agencies, and community providers and coordinated by the Partnership for Strong Communities. Reaching Home has been incredibly successful over the arc of its 11-year history. What began in 2004 as a campaign to create 10,000 units of supportive housing to end long-term homelessness went through its first reboot eight years (and 6,000 units) later by expanding its focus to end all homelessness in Connecticut.

Using a guiding framework based on the federal Opening Doors plan to prevent and end homelessness in the U.S., the Reaching Home campaign secured over $300 million in state funding for housing-based solutions to homelessness in the past three years alone.  Over 130 organizations statewide are involved in the campaign, actively engaged in leadership and working committees that are advancing new approaches in service access, housing, health care, and workforce development.

Reaching Home is the first statewide Opening Doors campaign in the country so the Melville Trust engaged The Building Movement Project (BMP) to conduct a mid-term learning assessment of Reaching Home to enable the campaign participants to reflect on how it is working and to share insights on what we have learned.  Through a series of interviews and a statewide survey, BMP found that the campaign has several core strengths that continue to drive its success: a clear, ambitious vision and a strong sense of shared purpose; committed, collaborative leadership; highly effective legislative advocacy; and increased coordination among community providers.

The report also identified some areas that are ripe for greater attention at this stage in its lifecycle: the need for a messaging strategy that would help the public better understand who is homeless, why, and the cost-effectiveness of solutions; and widening and deepening the campaign’s circle of engagement beyond its core participants – including people who are or have experienced homelessness, people working on the front lines of housing and service delivery, and groups that do not work directly on the issues of homelessness.

So this campaign is also going to be hitting the books this semester. Retooling the campaign at this stage is likely to require some creative thinking about how to structure the engagement process, and unlearning some long-standing habits in the ways the campaign engages with others.  But given the incredible momentum and positive energy generated by Reaching Home’s successes to date, the chance to address these critical areas of connecting and communications is an incredible opportunity to propel the campaign to a whole new level of performance. We’re shooting for an A+ on this campaign.

Download: Coordinating Collaboration (PDF)

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