Sarah Quarantotto: The Story of Miriam’s House – Ending the Cycle of Homelessness
Sarah Quarantotto joined Miriam’s House in 2010, after working for a number of years in the Lynchburg area with local social service and mental health agencies. She has immensely appreciated the opportunity to lead an organization with such a rich history of empowering families and individuals made vulnerable by homelessness. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University. When not working to end homelessness, Sarah is spending time with her husband, Jeremiah, and their two children exploring the outdoors and beauty of Central Virginia.
Hugh Ballou: Welcome to today’s Nonprofit Exchange. Today we are going to tell a story of a very successful nonprofit, and it happens to be in the city where I live, Lynchburg, Virginia. Russell, how is it out in Denver today?
Russell Dennis: Nice and toasty. Beautiful blue skies. It’s been clouding over very quickly in the afternoons. We are approaching three figures out here. It’s been good because my tan will start to pop.
Hugh: We are in the mountains of western central Virginia, and it is a lovely day. Overcast and threatening to rain. We have the old mountains here, the ones that have been rained on and smoothed off. You have those young mountains. We have been on an adventure interviewing some really interesting people. I just met Sarah Quarantotto. Did I say that right?
Sarah Quarantotto: Yeah. Yep.
Hugh: Just met Sarah last week at my rotary meeting, where she was presenting. I was really impressed with the story about this nonprofit she is the executive director for. I asked her to come on and tell the story from the leader standpoint. Where was the organization? Where is it now? Sarah, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your passion was for wanting to do this job.
Sarah: My name is Sarah Quarantotto, and I am the executive director of Miriam’s House. I have been a social worker here in central Virginia for about 15 years. After finishing my Master’s in Social Work, I came to work at Miriam’s House as the Clinical Director. I really had the opportunity to be on the front lines working with homeless individuals. Two years after that, I was offered the Executive Director job, which I was really honored to accept.
Hugh: Tell us about why you accepted it.
Sarah: When you are working in an organization with such an incredible impact, the leadership really matters. When there was a change in leadership and an opportunity to become that leader, I thought it was a really great opportunity to continue the good work of Miriam’s House, but also to grow and expand that work. I was really happy to be able to have that opportunity.
Hugh: Our audience for this podcast and this video is typically people like you, people sitting in the chair of leading an organization. It might be a ministry. It might be a community-based charity, a membership-based charity, a cause-based charity. They are all kinds of different operations. The anchor to it is leaders make things happen.
I am going to ask you a couple of questions. You have a background in social work and you are doing leadership. Those are different skillsets. Before you do the question, talk about the impact. You mentioned the impact on the homeless. Where was this organization when you started? Where is it now? You gave some statistics last week in your presentation that were really important.
Sarah: Miriam’s House, when I first came here, we operated a transitional housing program. For 20 years, we had a program on site that provided housing for 11 households at a time. The great thing about homeless response nationally is that the concept of programs responding to homelessness have expanded beyond facilities, beyond four walls of a facility, and really into the community. By looking at different models of intervention, we have been able to grow astronomically. Back in 2008, pre-recession, we served 33 individuals. This year, we are slated to serve over 300. That is a 900% increase. That meant we had to think outside the box and think about new ways and accept best practices that were happening in other communities, even though they had not occurred here in Lynchburg.
Hugh: You spoke of different levels of service. What do those look like? What is the impact? You also spoke about how people don’t return to homelessness. Talk about the impact and the different levels, will you?
Sarah: Yeah. I think back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, the homeless response provided through Miriam’s House and many organizations was a one-size-fits-all approach. Every person or household that became homeless was given the same level of support and resources. What we have realized is that that is really unnecessary. Everyone’s story is different. Their circumstances are different. Instead of doing a one-size-fits-all approach, we triage our resources. We have intensive services that do occur on-site here to minimal or soft-touch resources, where someone just needs assistance with connecting with a landlord that has reasonable rents and being that liaison between that homeless household and that landlord to get them back into housing. It is the gamut of homeless response that we can do: everything from providing long-term housing with long-term case management to a short-term intervention.
Hugh: The impact of the work. You said many of the statistics. 96% and 100%. I was really paying attention. Russell, I hope you are impressed. People that are placed and people that don’t return to homeless situations.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s great. So last year, 96% of the households we served moved out of homelessness and into safe, affordable housing in the community. That’s great. That’s our ultimate measure of success. We want to end people’s homeless episode in a way that you do that is to get them back into housing. We are concerned about long-term success. We don’t want folks to return to homelessness a year or two years after housing. We also track that data. Last year, we had 100% success in no household recidivating over a span of two years’ prior. That was really exciting because it means what we are doing is successful in the short-term of ending someone’s homelessness and in the long-term in that they are not returning to homelessness. That is really exciting.
Hugh: There is a process piece of finding a house and getting into it. There is an emotional piece that helps people have an attitude of self-sufficiency. How do you work with people in that realm, helping them learn what they need to learn to be able to stay where they are?
Sarah: Our approach is really about empowerment. Rather than having punitive services where we are having our case managers tell people what it is they need to do, we really meet with them to identify what it is they want to accomplish or how perhaps their homeless episode was impacted by something previous that we can mitigate by an intervention. For example, if someone was homeless because they had untreated depression and were unable to go to work because of that depression, which then led to them losing their apartment and having to go to a homeless shelter, we can work with that individual to identify that, get them into treatment, see a therapist or get on medication so that homeless episode can be prevented in the future. Working with each household to identify what it is that you need to be stably housed and not return to homelessness.
We have flexible resources. We have a once-a-month after-care support group that meets where households can come back and receive peer support about anything from tenant rights and responsibilities to a resource in the community, back-to-school supplies or something like that. That is a great resource to help people stay connected.
We also offer ongoing case management. In their home at the beginning, as soon as they first move into housing, because that is a fragile time, so working with them in the home to make sure they have what they need, furniture and clothing, that they understand their new community, that they have the bus routes. Long-term, that might be a phone call here and there, touching base and seeing how they are doing. Tailoring that response to allow households to recognize they are not alone, there is a resource out there, we really want them to be successful in the long term. That success is outlined by them and their own goals. We are here to support them in that.
Hugh: People can find you at MiriamsHouseProgram.org. Give us some of the statistics. Your cost per client served has gone down dramatically over the years. Your successful rate of people who have stayed in a home. Give us some of those numbers. Those are incredible. The impact you are having on people’s lives.
Sarah: Pre-recession, back in 2008, we were serving a homeless person at a cost of about $16,000 per person. Now, that is almost down to $2,000. That is really because we tailor the response appropriately. Certainly more expensive responses, longer-term supports are there for those who have had high barriers to housing, who have long episodes of homelessness. For those who really need a soft touch, that’s what we provide, which means we have more funds available to serve more households. Our growth, and the fact that we expanded so significantly, is not because our budget has increased tremendously; it’s because we are being a lot smarter with our resources that we have, recognizing that not every household needs an intensive resource.
Hugh: Love it. Russ is going to have some good questions. He is taking this in. I want to move us. We have established how successful Miriam’s House in the work that you are doing in the city in Virginia that has the highest poverty rate in the whole commonwealth. 24.5% in Lynchburg. The work you are doing is one of many charities that is reaching out to help people regain power in their lives and help them have a better future. I was so impressed with your report, how you gave it and the work you are doing. You just do it. You don’t toot your horn or something. You just do it. I was quite impressed. You have a degree in social work.
Sarah: That’s right.
Hugh: And you’re leading an organization. Those are two different skillsets. When you first came to work, you were the social worker, I’m guessing. Now, that is still a skillset you have; however, putting on the leader mantle is a different skillset. Talk about that journey. How did you equip yourself for this leadership position that you’re in?
Sarah: The great thing about social work as a discipline is that there is an understanding of a micro track, which is clinical in nature and talking more directly working with service individuals, but there is a macro track. Many individuals really think that social work is more about micro, one-on-one individual track. But actually there is this great macro track that talks about and educates on organizational change and system change and advocacy and capacity-building for different systems or models of care and community wealth-building or changing. The great thing about social work is that both of those aspects are part of the education. I had some great experience or some education in that macro piece, which is about making significant impacts. Even things such as data, which has become more important in the social work realm and social services organizations and human services organizations, to measure outcomes. Back in the day, it was sort of, I am going to do this intervention because it feels right to me. I like it. It seems like a good approach.
And now, that’s flipped to what does the data show? Is this effective? Is this working? What are your actual outcomes? That has been appealing to me in that I was able to work individually with people and see an individual outcome. Someone who was no longer sleeping on the street, was able to have an apartment, was able to get a job. That’s really cool. In a leadership position, I am able to see how that translates into a big picture. I can see we have a 63% reduction in family homelessness in our community over the course of a year. That’s incredible. Even though that results in individual families who I may no longer know, I know that that makes a difference. Going from a direct service position to more of a leadership position, I am able to bring those personal experiences into leadership to know that the work we do to improve big-picture design and implementation means that more and more families and more homeless households are being impacted. I still have those images of those individuals and families in my head even though I am no longer working directly with them in their home or in a shelter.
Hugh: That’s an effective model. You know how it works because you worked there. Supervising that and empowering that, you have first-hand knowledge of that space. That’s good. What were your challenges in coming up to speed and letting go of doing and empowering others to do? What were your challenges in that?
Sarah: I think there is the piece of having to let go of some of that first-hand experience or interaction with clients. There is a part of having to trust the people who are now in those positions to continue that great work. That involves not only are we an organization dedicated to empowering our clients, but we also want to be dedicated to empowering our employees. A lot of that means I trust them to do the work they have set out to do. Supporting them, training them, but ultimately believing they are going to continue that mission of ending homelessness in the framework we have created at Miriam’s House, which is one of empowerment and support for our clients.
Hugh: That’s awesome. I am going to shut up for a minute and let my co-host- He has been over here thinking of questions for you. He comes from a position of having been inside of a nonprofit doing funds development, and now he supports nonprofit leaders all over the place, like I do. Russell, do you have some questions for our guest today?
Russell: I’d like to welcome you and thank you for coming in and sharing your experience with us. It’s very critical to give people in a stable place because then you can start to solve the other problems they have. The formula that you’re working by is perfect for what needs to be done. Homelessness is a tough issue. I have found myself in a coalition. I am in several coalitions that focus on homelessness here. Our biggest challenge is affordable housing.
To get back to the work you are doing, having been on the ground, effective leaders or transformational leaders, as Hugh defines them, are people who know all of their audiences, and that includes the people they serve. Transformational leaders build good leaders around them. When everybody understands how what they do fits into the big picture, and they see those results, they get a broader understanding of what they are doing, and it works better. Just looking at the work you do and how you approach serving people and the people that you partner with, the collaboration piece is something you didn’t address that I love about what you’re doing. It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing when you are dealing with something like homelessness. It’s not the dirty old guy in a raincoat you’re talking about. We’re talking about families here. It’s very important to do that. I know that homelessness, as it is measured all over the place, greatly understates what is there.
Another thing about what you’re doing is that you are doing it right. You’re probably not serving as many people. Nonprofit leaders by and large do not have enough money and do not serve enough people for where they want to see people go in the community, in the direction they wanted to go in. But it is the effectiveness and efficiency with which you serve the people that you have. There are real stories behind the numbers that jump out so that people see that impact. That is remarkable. I commend you for that. It’s great. Being able to make that shift form social worker to leader of the organization is difficult because a lot of people that are in that field have a lot of difficulty talking about the value they bring. It is about value. You’re working in partnerships to transition people from where they are.
In thinking about this, when you were asked to be the leader of this organization, what are the things you were doing- I know you probably did this as they interviewed you. What were the things that you were doing that they thought made you right to take leadership of the organization?
Sarah: Taking the mission of the organization, which is of course to end homelessness, and expanding it beyond what the organization had always done. Leading the programs and making recommendations for new ways to still fulfill that mission of ending homelessness, but not being so tied to a certain program type in order to do that, I think the board recognized that, especially after the recession, when nonprofits either had the same resources or fewer resources, they realized that was something they wanted to embrace, which was exciting to me. Nobody wants to be the leader of an organization that is stagnant and stays the same and is not interested in adapting or growing. That was mutually exciting for the board and myself to recognize that we wanted to take Miriam’s House in a different and better way, but still further that mission of ending homelessness and not leaving that behind.
Russell: It’s keeping your eye on the prize. That involves having what I call some tough conversations in the boardroom. Think of a time when you had a really tough conversation in the boardroom that really kicked you up to a new level. Are there some points where you had to have some tough conversations about a new approach or a specific program that was difficult, but once you had that conversation and navigated that, it took you to another level?
Sarah: Back in the ‘90s, when Miriam’s House was formed, we served homeless families, but we defined those families as single moms with children. What we have done over the last several years is I have had to talk with the board about changing that family definition to include any household with children under the age of 18, whether that’s a grandma raising a grandchild, a single dad raising his two children, or two moms with their children. I think that was tough. A lot of individuals were really tied to the fact that Miriam’s House supported single moms that were homeless. Having to educate them that families sometimes look different. As an organization, we don’t want any child to be homeless, regardless of their family composition. Changing that definition of family to include any household with children was a big step for our board and for our organization because now, it allows us to serve every homeless family in our community as opposed to being narrow in our definition.
Russell: One thing I have discovered in joining these coalitions here in Colorado in the Denver metro area is there is a segment of the population that have been coined as “housing unstable.” These are people who are working full-time, not necessarily eligible for services. Some may be on the verge or a paycheck away from homelessness. Others are couch surfing. They are working full-time or a combination of jobs to constitute full-time. They still don’t have enough resources to provide themselves with stable housing. We also have a segment of kids who are in the high schools who are homeless. They couch surf and come to school. Are you finding you have those populations in Lynchburg? If there are a significant number of them, what are the steps you have taken at Miriam’s House to help them?
Sarah: As a community, we have noticed a growing trend of youth homelessness. That is what you mentioned. That is the unaccompanied, 18-24, many of them have aged out of foster care or an institution setting, and don’t have that family support to make that next step into adulthood. Next month, we are going to be expanding one of our programs, Community First, which is a rapid re-housing program for families, and we are also going to be serving unaccompanied youth with that program. That is what happened. We noticed that trend. There is a growing population. There is not an organization in Lynchburg that targets homeless youth, and so we are going to become that, which I think is really exciting. It’s a vulnerable population with some different challenges than the homeless families we are serving, but certainly real needs. We are excited to be serving that population in a few days.
Russell: That’s wonderful that you came up with the resources and vision to do that. We are experiencing a lot of trouble. Our real estate market in the Denver metro area and throughout Colorado have hopped rent prices very high. We just had our very last homeless shelter that was in Jefferson County close down two weeks ago. There are no homeless shelters in Jefferson County, which has about 655,000 people. The shelter model is what we leaned on before, but it doesn’t really lend itself to long-term solutions. It’s basic Maslow. When people are worried about how to keep dry and eat, they can’t be concerned with higher pursuits. What is your feeling about affordable housing in Lynchburg? How are you incorporating that into your approach? Do you think the shelter model is dead?
Sarah: That is two different things. What you are mentioning is the housing-first model. It stemmed in the last 10 years from the recession and recognizing we don’t have enough shelters or facilities to address homelessness. Those facilities often had poor outcomes. There was a lot of revolving door and people not necessarily ending their homelessness through going to a shelter, but prolonging it. There is a place for a brief short-term shelter, a crisis-oriented shelter that is short-term, I’ve lost my house and I need to go somewhere for a couple days. What we do here in Lynchburg and what many communities around the country are doing is then quickly working with that household to find housing, whether that’s affordable housing in the community, subsidized housing, or assistance through rapid re-housing. There certainly is a place for shelter, but I don’t think that place is a 30/60/90-day stay without an intervention. What our community does is we have set benchmarks. After two days of staying in a homeless shelter, a case manager needs to be meeting with that household, working on a housing plan, figuring out if they are going to need additional resources or do they just need support to get back into housing?
That goes into your next point about affordable housing. If we want to get people out of shelter quickly, the way to do that is by having an affordable housing stock. Many of these individuals are still going to be poor. They either are already working and working a low-wage job, or we are helping them get employment, but that employment is probably not going to be the median income for our community or for any community. Affordable housing continues to be a problem for our community and many others, not just the quantity of affordable housing, but the quality, too. One of the biggest issues for our community is the condensed areas of affordable housing. When you have that only located in low-income neighborhoods, it does not provide opportunities for households to get out of poverty and to better themselves. As a community, I am part of a housing collaborative working to increase affordable housing, not just the quantity, but also the location of that housing, recognizing that having affordable housing in mixed-income neighborhoods will provide much more opportunity for those formerly homeless households than if they were going right from a shelter back into a poor neighborhood.
Russell: There are all sorts of auxiliary issues like access to transportation. Of course, our transit district is at best a light rail. I am a light rail rider, but it’s not for my livelihood. It’s for my convenience. The people in the poorer neighborhoods do not have good access to that light rail. When you talk about condensing people in an affordable project, there has been a number of them built in various areas of the city where people who came in. We had men and women from the Second Chance Center, who are people who experienced incarceration, trying to recreate their lives. They secured funds to build something. There is a big community meeting, not in my neighborhood.
One of the things that Close to Home is doing is reaching out to people to talk about homelessness and what it looks like because there is the old guy with the bottle of wine and the paper bag type of image who is just a wino, man under the bridge. That is the image people have about homelessness. A lot of homeless people look like you and I. You would never know in a thousand years that they are homeless. Trying to talk with people about that. Talk about some of the ways you folks have tried to explain what homelessness is and educate the community in order to get more support for what you’re doing.
Sarah: I think a lot of that is creating that empathy. It’s allowing individuals who don’t interact with people experiencing homelessness to understand some stories or some faces. We did a photograph exhibit several years ago, “Faces of Homelessness.” It was very simple. It was showing the faces of the men, women, and children in our community experiencing homelessness. They were not the faces that community members expected. You’re right. It’s not the grizzly old man who has been on the streets for 30 years. Certainly, there are a handful of individuals like that, but by and large, it’s the five-year-old kid whose mom was a victim of domestic violence, and they had to flee their home. Or it was the 50-year-old woman who has worked a low-wage job her entire life and was laid off because the company moved, so she became homeless. Creating that empathy through photos and stories is an important piece of what we do. We have a large community luncheon every year with almost 500 attendees, and having a client speaker at that is always the most popular part of the event, better than the raffles.
Being able to see someone face-to-face who has experienced homelessness, to realize they are just like you or I, but they had a crisis occur, whether that crisis was a house fire or domestic violence or the loss of a job, that crisis hit, they did not have the resources to sustain that, and they became homeless. Recognizing that it’s not always as easy as saying it’s someone’s fault, that they drank too much, or they were too lazy to go to work, understanding that’s not what causes homelessness. Crises can occur to any household. If the household does not have the resources to weather that storm, they will become homeless. Having those different events and opportunities to share that story really creates that empathy.
The incredible thing is that the Lynchburg community is so supportive of the work we do. Our expansion and being able to add new populations and being able to continue our work is because they have that empathy and they understand that this is their community. They do not want people sleeping outdoors or on park benches. That is inhumane.
Hugh: I am going to weigh in because you mentioned the stereotypical old guy.
Russell: Hmm, wonder where that comes from.
Hugh: I don’t know where that comes from. Sarah, this is remarkable. I am just realizing I don’t see a whole lot of people on park benches walking the streets in Lynchburg. Some cities, it’s just very much in your face. You mentioned there were nine programs that did similar work. Talk about collaborations. How do you work in conjunction with any kind of disciplines, any agencies in working with this demographic?
Sarah: We have a great community collaboration among homeless response providers, not only jus those direct service providers, our homeless prevention, our homeless diversion, shelters, DV shelters, organizations like us that do those next step services. We have those at the table. We also have our auxiliary services: our social services, our mental health providers, our recovery providers, probation and parole, police offers, our school systems. We recognize we need everyone at the table informing policy, informing decisions. The great thing is that having all those different voices allows us to make sure there are no gaps in services, that we are serving every population. We have providers that are working specifically with veterans experiencing homelessness. We target families. Now we are going to be the youth provider. We have other organizations who work with individuals who are chronically homeless.
Recognizing that not one organization needs to do it all. Instead, we need to build upon which organization is really great at this work, and let’s support them in that instead of duplicating or trying to compete. That is what we do as a homeless response system. We recognize what the gaps are, what we are doing really well, and also what do we no longer need. Maybe we no longer need this many shelter beds because we are doing a really good job at diverting or preventing people from becoming homeless. Let’s instead dedicate more resources to that so that way we can do a better job of preventing homelessness rather than just treating it. Those conversations can really happen when you have everyone at the table, so that has been really neat.
Hugh: Preventing. Go ahead, Russell.
Russell: Prevention work more than a pound a cure. Next time you’re out, Hugh, we can do a tour. I can show you where a lot of homeless people are. They are starting to appear in the burbs, away from Denver. They’re everywhere. Those conversations or those collaborations are magic because everybody works in their wheelhouse. But there is always more. In looking at the measures that you’re thinking about as far as prevention, if there was one thing that as a group these agencies could do that would be the most important thing for them to do as far as prevention, what would that one action be that you would have them take?
Sarah: Create more affordable housing. We talked about it earlier. That’s the piece. Not only in preventing homelessness at the front end, but also in ending homelessness when someone becomes homeless. By and large, no one wants to become homeless. People are becoming homeless because they don’t have affordable housing. If somebody is already paying more than 50% of their income toward rent and they lose that job, there is no way they have a savings account to pay that next month’s rent when they were already paying more than their means. Having more affordable housing really would be the key in preventing many incidences of homelessness.
Russell: That sounds either like like-mindedness or group psychosis. That’s what a lot of people are thinking in these parts. We have a real challenge with affordable housing because there is development going on everywhere. There is people making tons of money. There are moves being made by various city governments to clear away some areas to do some rezoning to allow for mixed-use commercial and affordable housing with land prices and housing prices going up. It’s a real challenge for us here. I hope it’s not as big there. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the mission. Your people are willing to cooperate. I just found out about agencies I didn’t even know about. There is a spirit and collaboration a lot of people are looking at because this is huge. There are people from all sides of town that are starting to look at this and say, “Ooh, we are in over our heads.” There is a lot more willingness to collaborate. I guess that is what Henry Kissinger meant when he said “The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously.”
Sarah: Yep, sure.
Hugh: Sarah, going forward, I’m sure as a leader, you have a vision for what this organization should look like in five years. Have you developed that in conjunction or have a process to think about that with your board?
Sarah: Yeah. We do some great strategic thinking every few years. Three years with our board, to lay that vision, to say where we have come, where are we going. That has happened. Our growth has not just happened by accident. It has been strategic. What do we do really well? First, that was family homelessness. We improved that program until now we can serve every family experiencing homelessness. Then it was recognizing what was next. There is this youth homeless population that is not being served, so now we are going to grow that program. I think that will really continue. It is recognizing the dynamic changes of homelessness and what it is we can do to make a difference. If in five years from now, all of a sudden we see a spike in a different population experiencing homelessness, then we will address that population. We are remaining true to our mission of ending homelessness, but recognizing that might look different as circumstances change, as our community shifts or changes, or different populations become homeless. Or there is new interventions. The biggest thing for me is to remain flexible. Recognizing that in all that we do, we need to be working to end homelessness. That will look different, and we will be serving different people five years form now than we are serving right now.
Hugh: As a side note, SynerVision gives away ten visioning or board evaluation sessions a year for local nonprofits. We can extend that to Denver if you wanted to, Russ. We meet with boards. It’s helpful to have somebody who is not inside to help boards think about what possibilities there are. You come backwards and think about how to get there.
If you have a vision for the future, what are the biggest challenges in going forward with all of the things going on in our world today? What is the biggest challenges that Miriam’s House faces to achieve those goals?
Sarah: There is difficulty in predicting things like the availability of federal and state funding for homeless response is a concern. Of course, a portion of our funding is through federal homeless response grants and state homeless response grants. That is for many of our partners across the country. The instability of that funding is a concern. Continued funding for things like subsidized housing and affordable housing development. That will be huge in the next several years, seeing the direction of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in creating more affordable housing in communities. Those big policy decisions are difficult to predict. They shape how communities address homelessness.
Hugh: In your seat of leader, how do you continue to work on yourself, your skills, your abilities to grow this organization?
Sarah: I think taking advantage of others in similar roles across the state and the country in forming those connections and those collaborations. Even just having open conversations about challenges they are experiencing, things they had to overcome. I am certainly not one to recreate the wheel. When we have added a new program or serve a new population, I have reached out to others who are doing good work and have asked for help, input, and advice. That has served me well and allows me to not to have to recreate the wheel or learn from mistakes, but rather to really hone in on what has worked for others. I think that has been and will continue to be helpful tool.
Hugh: We are coming to the last minutes of our conversation. We try not to go over an hour even though we get intrigued by the good work of the people we interview. I think many people are going to find this inspiring, hearing your story. Some people learn by tactical, how to do this, how to do that. Other people learn from stories. Some people learn from both. This has been a good sharing time to inspire people. I want to ask a question, and then I will do my sponsor promotion, and then come back to you for a final thought as we close out the interview about what would you share with other people that you think they ought to know about leadership and building an organization. What is a challenge, a tip, or a charge for people who are listening to this podcast?
You talk about the groups that you get together with, like the veterans, the groups that have something in common. Do you also work with groups that aren’t doing the same thing? Do you work with Food for Families or some of those other charities that work with these people in different ways? If so, how do you build these collaborations?
Sarah: Yeah. Miriam’s House is not only a direct service provider, but we are also the lead agency for homeless response in central Virginia. Part of that role is building those connections and building those collaborations and recognizing that we need everyone at the table, not just the homeless response providers, but those other organizations and entities. That is people like landlords who may have housing that we can advocate to become more affordable, or we can advocate for those landlords to offer housing to individuals with barriers, like eviction. That collaboration is one on one with meaningful individuals and entities and encouraging them to become a part of the solution to homelessness. It’s also a larger thing. When there is a recognition of good work being done, people want to join that. Over the last several years, the homeless response system, of which Miriam’s House is a part of, has received some great recognition that we are making some good progress, we have done some good work, and so people, organizations, businesses want to be a part of that.
Hugh: It takes good leadership. Because of your demeanor and your willingness to talk and share, you attract similar people to you who would want to do that kind of work. You’re not in this protective secret operation. You’re doing something that is going to attract like-minded people. You can’t say that for every segment of charities in any community, not even Lynchburg. There are some segments that aren’t collaborating.
We are headed toward opening a center at the University of Lynchburg. SynerVision is a partner in that project, along with Central Virginia something for Excellence and Nonprofit. We are going to build a center. It’s partly helping equip leaders with skills for board and funding, but also a place to come and broaden the scope of collaborations. I’m thinking you ought to be in that conversation to help us think about how that would work because there are a lot of charities that don’t have this level of synergy that we want to help bring together, and also have a listing for everybody of who does what. There is not a global listing resource that is up to date so any agency knows how to refer to people. Just a heads up, we’d love to have you in that conversation sometime soon.
Sarah: Great. I would love to be part of that.
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Hugh: You spoke about grants, Sarah, but I’m sure donors are a significant part of your funding as well and could be even more.
Sarah: That’s true. I think that’s one thing that a lot of organizations have increased their efforts to because we don’t have a lot of control over state and federal grants, but we can certainly build relationships with our community donors.
Hugh: This has been very helpful and informative. I appreciate your time today. As we leave this session, what thought or challenge would you like to share with other leaders out there who haven’t quite gotten to the place that you have? Or who have gotten to a good place and want to make sure they stay current with their skills.
Sarah: Staying connected to the history of an organization and staying connected to the mission and the beauty that happened before, but also not being so tied to that history that there is an unwillingness to change and to grow. What has been great about my experience at Miriam’s House is that ability to honor the past while also really looking forward to the future and honoring that past by changing for the future.
Hugh: Russell, do you want to give us a wrap as we are leaving here?
Russell: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us here about an important matter. It’s really about partnerships. I think the private sector becomes a bigger part of that as we go along because when you talk about land and real estate, you’re talking about real money and profit. It’s important to get those people who resonate with your message on board to understand that this is impacting people they may know. Thank you for the brilliant work you’re doing. I’d love to talk to you again about a book I’m working on, profiling high-performance nonprofits because I think you’d fit there.
I thank all of our friends everywhere for watching and listening. Sandy will want you to submit something to our magazine, and we’d love an article on this. Not many people know much about homelessness, so it’s important they get a chance to learn more about that. Thank you to Sandy who always keeps us on track. We love it. Sandy is definitely looking forward to having an article. She will get that information to you on how to submit and what we look for. I look forward to seeing you soon.
As always, you know Hugh and I have a lot of fun. This is the fun part of the job: meeting people like you and finding out what stuff you’re doing. It helps us recharge our batteries. We are in the transformation business. It’s about people. It’s about transforming lives. There is a bigger picture here. We need a lot of enlightened leaders like you to bring it to life for other people and to help us move on and create that legacy so no one is left behind.
Hugh: Thank you, Russell.
Russell: Not bad for a bald guy.
Hugh: Not bad. Thank you, Russell. Thank you, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you.