Among our growing list of A1 partners in social innovation (by disruption) is Neighborhood Centers Inc., a non-profit human services agency serving the greater Houston, Texas area. The agency has been a witness to radical change in the past century, both in the communities it serves and in how it serves them. Today, 107 years after first opening its doors, Neighborhood Centers employs 1130 staff across 70 sites with a budget of $263 million – and served 528,000 residents in 2013 alone.
This post examines Neighborhood Centers’ journey and the role of ‘figure it out’ leadership in taking a snowball’s chance to define communities as sources of infinite potential – not problems to be solved. Experience their story live when CEO/President Angela Blanchard takes the stage at #BIF10, Sept 17-18, 2014.
From Settlement House to Social Innovator
Neighborhood Centers Inc.’s earliest work began with the settlement house movement in 1907, laying the groundwork for marginalized populations to participate more meaningfully in society in ways that nurture self-sufficiency over dependency. The agency held true to a key tenet of the settlement house philosophy: neighborhood involvement. In one of her early writings, Ms. Jane Addams, a founder of the settlement house movement, stated that she and her fellow workers learned “not to hold preconceived ideas of what the neighborhood ought to have, but to keep ourselves in readiness to modify and adapt our undertakings as we discovered those things which the neighborhood was ready to accept.” Openness and adaptability was key.
In the 1960s and 70s, the agency was considered a ‘poverty agency,’ not just because of the population it served, but because of how it operated: in ragtag buildings, poorly equipped, poorly trained, under-funded, and in many cases taken for granted. i An ‘either/or’ mindset was the norm: EITHER the agency funded its internal infrastructures OR fed its clients.
Under the leadership of Angela Blanchard, first as board member in the early 1980s, then CFO and now president/CEO, the search for ‘both/and’ solutions took over: “Far from depriving our clients, we were strengthening our capacity to help them by meeting the basic needs of our organization.” ii Helping clients hold a possibility-focused abundance mindset meant Neighborhood Centers Inc. had to hold one for itself.
Despite initial resistance Blanchard persisted, strengthening internal infrastructure until the results began to speak for themselves. In 1995, Neighborhood Centers Inc. was eleven times larger than it had been in 1986 with the lowest overhead among agencies of equal size. iii
Leveraging internal talent and a strengthened operating capacity, management began securing large government grants and contracts. This enabled the expansion of financial assistance programs aimed at child care, adult employment services, job training and case management for disaster relief activities. Neighborhood Centers Inc. built on its long-standing expertise in childhood development, expanding services to include early childhood education and opened a charter school. By 2007 its reputation as a poverty agency was a distant memory as it catapulted itself into a new position as one of the largest service employers in the greater Houston area. iv
From White Board to Neighborhood
Neighborhood Centers Inc. was already a success story, but it aspired to still greater heights, namely improvements to service delivery consistent with their strength-focused operational philosophy.
In 2005, Blanchard’s staff began experimenting with Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as applied to Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), recognizing that individuals and organizations housed assets on which economic, political and social strengthcould be built. AI framed service delivery around two deceptively simple premises:
- What we look for, we find, and what we pay attention to, grows. Positive image begets positive action.
- People commit to what they help to create. The more inclusive the change process, the more committed community members will be to its success and follow-through.
Neighborhood Centers’ responsibility and opportunity was to link neighbor to neighbor, asset to asset. Consistent with its settlement house roots, it did not set out to ‘help’ Houston residents, but to ask, to listen, and to empower, giving voice to people such that they might participate in the enrichment and vitality of their neighborhoods, building on strengths while transforming the lives of those who live there.
Over 120 appreciative interviews were facilitated at town hall meetings and community events, at schools and places of worship, even on front porches. Staff published these stories of strength, resilience, and exemplary leadership in its first Voices report shortly after. Unlike traditional media sources, Voices portrayed the amazing promise of Gulfton and Sharpstown, printed in both English and Spanish, and was distributed widely across the community.
The impact was astounding; conversations began to shift from the downward spiral thinking residents were used to (poverty, struggle), to that of adversity and opportunity. Community members began to change the stories they told about themselves.
Gatherings small and large, these community inquiries helped the agency turn a critical corner. By inviting residents to come together to tap into their well of strengths and assets, and envision still greater possibilities for themselves and their neighborhoods, improvements occurred more swiftly, efficiently and purposefully. The change was grounded in principles of self-empowerment and cooperation.
Among the countless social innovations that have since spawned:
- A community newsletter titled “Gulfton Neighbors” to communicate and highlight the many rich assets already at play in the neighborhood, while also shedding light on opportunities for further strengthening social connections critical to economic and community development.
The Magic Bus, which circulates between the neighborhood’s many apartment complexes, grocery stores, and social service providers – key locations that the city’s public transportation alone does not serve.
- New partnerships, particularly among service providers who were inspired to work together more collaboratively around complementary strengths and shared areas of interest.
The Voices to Vision summit, a three-day gathering in August 2008 of over 400 staff, residents, educators, business owners, donors, volunteers, students, and elected officials for a collaborative learning and strategic planning journey. More then empowering staff to ask great questions, Neighborhood Centers wanted to empower and inspire its richly diverse community to also be the change they wanted to see in Houston.
Cutting through the partisan rhetoric, Blanchard wooed Democrats and Republicans, raising $25 million to build the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center which opened in 2010, a five building, four acre complex designed by community members for community members, with services ranging from tax preparation to low-cost banking, a clinic, and charter school. Since the center opened, crime has decreased 11% in Gulfton. In Houston overall, crime is down 4%.
- In 2010 Neighborhood Centers gained national attention from the US Department of Education, which granted the agency a $500,000 Promise Neighborhood planning grant, wherein Neighborhood Centers was 1 of 21 organizations selected (out of 300 communities that applied nationwide).
The agency’s model for building vibrant communities stepped up to the national stage in 2011 at TEDxHouston, then later at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF7) summit. Fast Company magazine listed Angela among its November 2012 Generation Flux, honoring disruptors who embrace adaptability and flexibility with success. The following year Angela was featured again in Fast Company, this time on its 2013 Top 1000 Most Creative People in Business. Also in 2013, Neighborhood Centers was invited to the White House (for the 3rd time), where Blanchard met with 9 other community development leaders, senior white house officials, and President Barack Obama to advise the administration on the President’s Promise Zone Initiative and Ladders of Opportunity, working to ensure that all families, no matter where they live, have ladders of opportunity to the middle class.
Figure It Out. That is the job.
Perhaps most noteworthy of the many innovations spawned and honors received was the agency’s own transformation from the outside-in, from a facilitator [of strength-based service delivery for others] to an OWNER of strength-based, possibility-seeking human capital development [for ITSELF].
In a recent interview, Blanchard talked about the most important jobs, those that she calls “FIO jobs”: “Figure it out. That is the job.” The task may seem daunting, and the masses might call the mission impossible; real leadership figures it out, no matter.
A big fan of Simon Sinek’s ‘Golden Circle,‘ Blanchard knows how to start with the “WHY”. It’s one thing to tell the world WHAT you do and HOW you do it so well, but it’s quite another to tell them WHY they should care. And FIO leaders “need a big WHY to get an even bigger WE.”
Blanchard lives by Teddy Roosevelt’s mantra, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Her favorite day each month: every third Thursday, when she hosts her #InGoodCompany forums for aspiring leaders, which she opens up to the general public. It’s a mixed bag of storytelling, listening, and connecting – topped off with a call to action for community members, youth, and staff to be ‘figure it out leaders’, come hell or high water.
For more on Neighborhood Centers social innovation savvy, come to #BIF10 in Providence, Rhode Island, Sept 17-18, 2014, where Angela Blanchard takes the BIF stage for the second time.
iBlanchard, A. (1995) Hierarchy of Needs – For Organizations: A Story of Organizational Transformation
ivChung, R. (January, 2008). ‘Financial Comparison 1997-2007: Neighborhood Centers Inc.’
vTimme, L. (January 2008). ‘Pasadena & South Houston: Unlocking the Strengths of our Communities.’ Voices: A Report onthe Strengths and Assets of a Community.
viChung, R. (January 2008). ‘Financial Comparison 1997-2007: Neighborhood Centers Inc.’