In this podcast, I repost an interview I had with Liz McCartney, Executive Director of St Bernard Project (SBP), a nonprofit organization she founded with her husband Zack Rosenberg to rebuild homes and help victims recover from natural disasters. They moved from DC to New Orleans to help out after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and decided to stay permanently.
I’ve been involved with IISE for many years now, and they asked me to conduct the interview, since it aligned with our Sustainable Development division’s mission. I conducted this interview in August 2019, and decided to share this with the podcast audience in case they didn’t hear it.
We were planning to volunteer with SBP at our annual conference in late May this year, but the conference was postponed until Oct this year, so hopefully we will still be able to help them out.
I think you’ll enjoy the great insights from Liz.
- St Bernard Project (SBP)
- Liz McCartney (LinkedIn)
- IISE Problem Solved Podcast
- IISE Sustainable Development Division
- “Getting Home” book by Liz and Zack
- Articles from Zack on Lean.org
- FREE online course called “Lean Six Sigma and the Environment”
- 6sigma.US Training and Certification Programs
- Creative Safety Supply – Free 5S Guide
Have you ordered the new book, “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 1)?” The book is made up of 8 chapters written about experiences from Lean and Six Sigma practitioners, to give you tips and tricks to help you work with nonprofits in your area. All proceeds donated to charity. We are also close to releasing Volume 2, so check back for the latest news.
This is Problem Solved, the IISE podcast where we talk to industrial and systems engineers about their work, ideas, and solutions.
Brion (B): Hi, I’m Brion Hurley and welcome to another episode of Problem Solved, the IISE podcast. I’m also the President-elect of the IISE Sustainable Development Division and today I’m getting a chance to discuss sustainability in disaster relief with Liz McCartney. She is co-author of the book Getting Home: How One Question Started Our Journey of Continuous Improvement. Liz is the executive director of St. Bernard Project for the New Orleans operation and she runs volunteer management and construction teams as along with the opportunity housing program. With their partnership with Toyota Production System Support Center, or TSSC, they were able to reduce the time to rebuild a home from 116 days to 61 days. Liz, thanks for joining us today.
Liz (L): Thanks for having me on the show.
B: It seems like there’s been some recent activity going on with storms down in New Orleans. How do you get prepared in your organization, the preparedness that you go through for that?
L: Yeah, thanks for asking. Fortunately, it wasn’t much of a storm here in New Orleans. We had some rain right before the storm came in that caused pretty significant street flooding, which dissipated before the end of the day on Wednesday, but otherwise, we were really lucky it was a non-event. That being said, we still take every storm very seriously and want to make sure that every member of our team has prepared and evacuated, if they so choose, and then we provide information both to our clients and the community to help with preparedness from a very practical things like making sure that every team member has a little bit of cash, gas in their car, ample amounts of water and food in their house, they know if there’s backup energy or power in their neighborhood just in case they need it, to setting up things like regular check-in calls and emails within the team both in New Orleans and outside of New Orleans, and then ensuring that certain members of the team can get out of town pretty quickly or pretty easily because our national functions exist here in New Orleans, so our finance and accounting teams, our communication and fund-raising teams, and we want to make sure that all of those can continue seamlessly even if the storm had occurred. So there’s a numbered of different things that we do both on the individual level, on the organization level, and communitywide to help with preparedness.
B: Cool. I think checklists are our favorite tools too, so I think that’s great that you incorporate that in and try to simplify the process for everybody.
L: Yeah, as much as we can, we think that’s really important. Now, we also work in communities before a storm is coming, within 48 or 72 hours, and we do a different type of preparedness or resilience training and that’s really a lot more focused on helping individual homeowners and business owners or employees of a corporation or, say, a school district really assess and try to mitigate their risk as much as possible by going through some really simple and practical exercises. That includes looking at your insurance, both homeowners and flood, to make sure, one, that you have it, two, that your company is reputable, and three, that you have the coverage that you need if there were a disaster in your community.
And then doing other practical things like looking at how the roof is tied on. A very, very high percentage of insurance claims are the result of roof damage and the result of roofs not being properly tied on, so those are some practical things that we want folks to look at, and then also just making sure that they have documents kept in a way that if a disaster were to come into their community, they could easily present the paperwork that’s needed to file an insurance claim or work with FEMA or get any kind of assistance and support they might need.
B: You and Zach had started in DC and then eventually came down to help after Hurricane Katrina and then you ended up setting up this nonprofit and moving down here and [inaudible 00:04:14] your jobs. What kind of experience did you have prior in terms of running processes, setting up something like this? Did you have some business training prior? Can you give me a little bit of insight on maybe working with nonprofits, some of that background?
L: Yeah. I really wish that we’d had more business and process training before we started SBP; it would’ve helped us a whole lot in the first couple of years. Prior to moving to New Orleans, I was working with middle school students at a nonprofit and, prior to that, I had taught in schools and my husband was a defense attorney and so we didn’t have much, if any, experience on the process side and on the operations side.
When we moved to New Orleans and started SBP, it was a lot of trial by fire, it was a lot of learning as we go and trying to bring people into the organization who could help us understand how to be as effective and efficient as possible in those very early days as we were setting up the organization and starting things off and then, as time went on, in the first couple of years as well. We got to a point where we thought we were doing a pretty good job and we were running somewhat efficiently. We were cranking out houses and helping clients get back home, getting life back to normal for the families that we were working with.
B: And you already had some insight because you guys both saw that the process of batching the repairs and the gutting of the homes was not very efficient and so you immediately saw that that’s not an effective way to continue to do that and you brought a lot of services under one roof. That’s why I was asking because it seemed like you had at least some interest or it was clear to you that there are better ways of doing things.
L: Yeah, that’s right. I remember when we had one of our initial conversations with an organization on the ground here. This was at a time when there were 250+ thousand flooded residential structures in the greater New Orleans area. We said to them, “So how are you thinking about this problem? what’s your approach going to be?” and they said, “Well, first, we’re going to gut all the houses and then, once we’re done gutting, then we’re going to go back and start rebuilding.” We just thought, “Gosh, if my mother or my grandmother was client 1 or 10 or even 1000, that’s not going to work out very well for her.” And so we saw that there were a lot of people gutting, but we didn’t see many people who had started the rebuilding process so we decided there was clearly a need for that and that’s where we jumped in.
B: When you did make a connection with Toyota, where were you guys at at that time? Was it a good time to take that on? if you had met them earlier, would that have not been a good time or where did they fit in in the big scheme in terms of your readiness for thinking differently? Did you think it was good that you went through and set things up the way you did first or how did the timing of involvement with them correspond?
L: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Sometimes you have to have those pain points to really appreciate guidance and support. We had had so many of those pain points that, by the time we met Toyota, which was about in year five of the organization’s history, we were really ready for change and we were really ready to learn from people who knew a lot more than us about how to improve our efficiency and how to serve our clients better. It was fortuitous that we met Toyota at an event that Zach and I spoke at and we very quickly connected with them and realized that their dollars would be great and powerful and certainly have an impact, but their sense would drive us forward in a way that could really help us significantly scale our operations and help a lot more clients. So, in many ways, we were very ready for some outside help and support and had had a lot of struggles trying to figure things out on our own.
B: What was the purpose behind writing the book then? Is it to share the journey you guys went on and to get other nonprofits involved with that or what inspired you or was it someone asking you to put this book together?
L: There’s a Japanese word called “yokoten” which means if you do it well, you should share it and it’s a term that we learned through our partnership with Toyota. It’s really what drives Toyota’s TSSC division and all the other brought best practice sharing that Toyota does both with nonprofits, like SBP, and other folks in the industry and their vendors, of course. They really want to make sure that they’ve developed some ways of thinking, they’ve developed some methodology around problem-solving, they’ve developed a lot of great tools and they’re willing to share it to help others get better too.
That concept really resonated with us in a very powerful way, mostly because the work that we do after a disaster is trying to help families get back in their homes and get back on their feet and the reality is that the need far exceeds our capacity. And so we want to make sure that we can help as many clients as we can and success to us isn’t what SBP can do, but really what the sector can do. And so if we have more organizations who are working efficiently, then ultimately, more families get to come home. And so for us, that’s really where the book came from is we wanted to share our journey, certainly share the mistakes and challenges that we faced, and then, hopefully, share some of the best practices and learnings that we’ve developed along the way so that others can grow from our experiences as well.
B: I’m glad you did because this is an excellent book. Our division really feels that there’s opportunities for our practitioners and members to get out and work with local organizations and introduce them to these topics because it’s not something, it seems, that’s really well known on the nonprofit side as well as other industries, so it’s not the only one. But once they learn some of these techniques, I think they will enjoy getting in there and practicing and applying these concepts.
L: I’ll tell you a little story, Brion. I still remember the first visit from the folks from Toyota. They did like an initial visit at SBP and they took a tour of our operation and then we all gathered in a room together. There were some high-level Toyota executives there from Japan, the leadership team from TSSC and others, and they asked us a series of questions. One of the first questions was they asked Zach, “So does your organization talk about problems?” and there’s Zach nodding his head and saying, “Yeah, yeah, we talk about problems,” and then the rest of us are standing behind him saying, “No, no, no, we don’t talk about problems.” And so I think it was almost from the very beginning of that relationship that we got this very strong sense that this was going to be an uncomfortable process but, that in order to change and get better and really meet the needs in our communities and be a good social service provider, we have to be willing to get uncomfortable.
And so I think there’s lots of opportunity for for-profits and nonprofits to get better at the work that they do. I guess the experience that I had, this level of discomfort and recognizing that that was going to be part of the journey, was something I hadn’t experienced before and I’m so glad that we were coached to embrace the discomfort, if you will.
B: How were the suggestions taken from the Toyota group when they came in? Were you guys open to those ideas? Was there a lot of pushback? How did it start off?
L: Yeah, I think we got all kinds of reaction and response from our team – everything from, “I’m totally open. I’m willing to hear anything at this point because I’m frustrated with my workflow,” to people who said, “What’s a car company going to teach us about building houses?” and everything in between. One of the things I really, really appreciated about the way that Toyota approach the work is that they assigned several process engineers to SBP and those folks got to know us and our team really well. And so they did a lot of deep dives into what our processes were, why they were that way, and starting to really identify where the pain points were or where there was a lot of rework in the construction process so that we didn’t feel like someone was just coming in and dropping a whole bunch of solutions or suggestions in our lap, that they were really trying to dig in and understand the way we were thinking and then helping us think through methodology that would address these problems and challenges that we kept facing over and over again.
So I think that approach was really helpful for us and helped to build a lot of trust on the team and get my team to see that what Toyota was bringing us was invaluable and could really significantly change the way that we did our work.
B: I think that’s really effective to get to know what’s going on first before you start throwing out ideas. I think a lot of us probably have found that much more useful approach than going in there and saying, “Yeah, I know what’s going on, I can tell. Here’s what you need to fix.”
L: And I think, from the very beginning, they also role modeled accountability well. There were lots of homework assignments when they would leave for a few days or a few weeks and then come back and check-in and dig in and really want to know what was working, what the problems were, and then how we were going to address the problems. Through all of these visits, from the very first one for many years afterwards, I felt like what they were doing was really helping us redefine what our culture was.
And so in order to change an organization and change the way that you do business, even the most basic simple processes, you’ve got to change the culture. If you don’t change the culture, then none of the other things are going to change. We realized, early on, that we had to become an organization that was willing to talk about problems. In fact, today, one of our core values is constructive discontent, which means that we want our team to never be satisfied and to always be talking about what the current problems are that they’re facing but do that in a way that’s hearable or constructive so that we can get to solutions pretty quickly.
B: Yeah, I thought that was a really interesting way of stating that as your improvement program is open to this challenging but in a way that’s useful and helpful. That was great.
B: Around the involvement with Toyota, do you feel like they helped more on the culture side of it or with the process thinking or was it a combination of both?
L: I would definitely say it was a combination of both. Really helping us think through what our culture needed to be in order to achieve the kind of results that we wanted to see was happening hand-in-hand with lots of small, incremental process improvements that got us to this state that we wanted to be in.
I still remember, very early on, this map that one of the process engineers from Toyota walked me through that described our current condition and then how we were going to get to our ideal condition. It was this visualization of where we wanted to go that, over the course of many, many months, we kept going back to. As they would help introduce and help us define new processes and procedures, whether it was working on a board that tracked clients through the application process or using better visualization for construction in the way that we were tracking our construction projects, we would always point back to that map and say, if we do these things, this is the direction that it’s going to get us in. So I would say that those were pretty balanced in their approach with us.
B: You have this integrated model that you describe in the book and rolled out. I really liked this concept, the heijunka approach of big projects and then weaving in different sized projects so that you’re not all wrapped up into one big thing and you’re filling in the gaps there on your demand. Could you talk about that a little bit?
L: Yeah, sure. It’s a balancing act and it’s always challenging, but the goal is that we want to have projects of different size and complexity and cost at all times in the system. That could be bigger projects, where we’re going into a house that has been completely gutted and needs everything from a new roof and foundation system to mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems, all the way to through to final punch, to smaller projects where maybe someone needs a new HVAC system and a new roof.
I think by staggering the approach and not leaning heavily on one versus the other, we’re able to have a couple of things going on. One is it helps you on the labor side. We use a combination of volunteers, in-house labor, and contractors and so we want to make sure that the types of projects that we have meet our labor availability and so that helps with that. It also helps around cash forecasting. It’s really challenging to run 25 jobs that are all at $75,000 a pop. It’s a lot of money to be going through at any given time, so the staggering approach has really helped balance some of the things in our organization that could be high demand if you have a lot of bigger jobs running at one time.
B: Can you talk through a couple of different improvements that you liked? I know you have quite a few in the book and so you can share some of those or, if there’s other ones that you think of that you would like to share or talk about, maybe around the construction side of it or making processes easier for volunteers or coordinating with volunteers more easily, or maybe it’s on the other end, on the nonprofit, with the fundraising or the back-office stuff, if you have some other examples you’d like to share with that.
L: Yeah, sure. I can give a couple of examples from the construction department. Prior to Toyota coming in, we wouldn’t think about this concept of standardized versus nonstandardized work. What Toyota helped us see is that, when we start a new construction project, our goal should be to get the house from its nonstandard condition to a standard condition. Once it hits a standard condition, it makes it a lot easier for us to utilize in-house labor and AmeriCorps members and volunteers, which reduce the costs there. We hadn’t really thought of it that way and by breaking out the construction process into those two steps, it really helped us better manage and predict when we were going to be able to utilize our in-house and our lower-cost labor versus the more expensive types of labor, like subcontractors and some of the more technical pieces upfront.
So that’s the first thing, I think the second is just visualization of the entire construction schedule for every house and then, every day, checking in to see if we were ahead or behind and really realizing that the ahead condition isn’t something that we want to strive for. You want to be on time and meet the schedule and certainly not fall behind, which is obvious, but you don’t necessarily want to get ahead in construction either because if you get ahead, then it can be really challenging for the supply and logistics teams to get the tools and materials for the next phase out on-site maybe earlier than they had anticipated. Really helping us understand how important it was to track ahead or behind and make sure that people who were on the ground working understood what their daily goals were so that they could make sure that they were hitting those.
Another thing that we did that really has helped us a ton is, in residential construction, there are so many different phases that require different tools, so we developed a kit system. For every phase of construction that we do, we developed these kits. They have enough tools and materials in them for somewhere between 8 to 12 people, especially volunteers, to get the work done on a house. If we’re hanging sheetrock, for example, there will be the right number of drills and gloves and PPE in the kit, along with screws and other tools that people need to do sheetrock. It really prevents having to go back and forth to the warehouse or the store to get this little widget or that little widget; they’re all prepackaged together. When our team knows that that house is moving into the drywall phase, then they’ll drop it off the day beforehand so that, the next day, everybody has the tools and materials that they need.
Some of these things are really pretty simple, but it was so helpful to have all of these ideas introduced into our process that really helped to eliminate a lot of waste, eliminate a lot of rework or having to go back out and get different supplies for a different piece of the construction process.
B: Does that work for a standard home, the point where it’s standard now, and then you have the kit that can be used for most of the jobs that are required after that point? is that how they connect together?
L: Yeah. There’s a general house kit that has lots of hand tools and other things for issues that might come up during the course of construction, then there are specific kits for insulation and drywall, mudding, painting, then putting in floors and doing interior trim and interior doors. As much as we can, we try not to have a lot of variability in the materials that we use; we try to use standard materials. We’re not a custom home builder. As much as we would like to be, that’s not what we do and so by having standard materials, it also helps our team become really good trainers on the specific materials that we use and for our team and our volunteers to execute on the installation of those materials.
B: Can I go back to the nonstandard versus standard? could you explain a little bit more on maybe an example of what would be nonstandard and then what happens to get it to a standard condition?
L: Sure. When I use the term nonstandard, I just think about the variability or the different states that clients’ houses are in when we first go and do the walk-through and put together the scope of work and estimate. One house might have taken on 8 feet of water, so it’s been gutted and that’s it. Another house may have had a contractor come in and do some of the electrical work, all of the plumbing work, and some of the windows. If you just take a sample of those two projects right there, there’s a lot of variability at the starting point. It’s not like building two new houses from the ground up where you know exactly what you need for every stage of the process.
So what we try to do is get every house through the rough-in stage of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, get the roof on, have it dried in. So in other words, have it all of the exterior siding, have the windows in, make sure the foundation is complete. And then once we’re in that completed rough-in phase, then we can transition to what we call a more standardized condition. Then we’ll start doing the insulation and the drywall and everything that comes after that. For a house that has had some work done on it, it’s really challenging because, oftentimes, you have to take out all of the work so you can really see what was done, you’ve got to check all the permits and make sure they were filed properly, and sometimes you have to take a few steps backwards before you can move forward.
B: When you guys go in and either gut a home or take things out, is there anything that’s salvaged there or is it pretty much that has to be landfilled, thrown away? Is it considered hazardous? I guess I’m not quite sure how that gets treated, but I would imagine, if it’s flooded, then there’s nothing you can really do to salvage some of those things. Is that the case, that most of it is going to get thrown away because of the damage that’s been done to it?
L: Yeah, that’s a great question. It really depends on how much water and how long it sat in the home for and then any other conditions in the environment outside. But generally, as a rule, if water comes into a house and stays there for any kind of period of time, we’re going to take all of the drywall and insulation out just because they wick water pretty quickly. Usually, you can keep the electrical wires in; it just really depends on the height of the water and what was in the water. Sometimes, all you have to do is cut the wire a little bit, if there’s enough extra wire in there, and then you can use what’s still there. There’s a fair amount of variability; it really depends on the flood and the flood conditions.
It’s really hard to go into someone’s house and gut it and put everything on the curb and watch it get taken away. It’s a very, very emotional process for the homeowner and, a lot of times, it’s really hot, hard work for people who are doing it, so we want to be able to, as much as we can, salvage personal items and, as much as we can, salvage anything that’s really not going to be susceptible to mold or mildew in the future. We want to be able to give the homeowner a house that, in its gutted condition, whatever state of gutting that is, it is ready to be rebuilt. And so it’s not always a clear-cut, black and white, but as much as we can, we try to err on the side of caution because we feel like it’s a lot less expensive to replace building materials one time instead of two times.
B: Yeah, that’s true. Any other examples like on the office and of your work that you guys have applied some of these concepts to?
L: Yeah, sure. Like I’ve mentioned a few times, we use a lot of volunteer labor at SBP, and so we try to make sure that we are establishing a capacity for volunteers, sort of a minimum and maximum number of volunteers that we want on any given day. Obviously, if we have too few volunteers, it can slow down the work at houses, but if we have too many volunteers, it can become an unsafe worksite, people can be standing around and wasting their time, we might not have enough tools or materials. There’s a whole host of things that can go wrong if there are too many people on site. And so we have, through our work with Toyota, set up a system to ensure that we’re in that min-max zone for volunteers every day and make sure that we have the right number of people at every house for the phase of construction that’s going on.
In addition to that, we’re staying in good touch with volunteers 60 days before they arrive, 30 days before they arrive, a couple of weeks out just to make sure that people are really prepared, that they’re coming with the right clothing, that they understand what the weather is going to be like when they arrive, that, really, their expectations have been set so that when they come here and they go out to the worksite, whether they’ve been to worksites thousands of times or this is their very first time, they have the background and their expectations have been set so that they can go out to the site, get trained, and then be successful.
B: I really liked how you built a lot of systems around the AmeriCorps volunteers and even did some training for them. Have you had opportunities to work with maybe some of the agencies you work with or other organizations that you partner with to teach them or coach them on some of these principles or concepts or get them to think about talking about problems in a more effective way?
L: Yes, we definitely have. We’ve done a lot of that – everything from other nonprofit organizations that we partner with or that are working in the same communities that we’re working in to government agencies to even some of our donors and funders who have been very generous and see the systems that we’ve developed and say, “We want to learn from you guys and figure out how to take some of these processes and systems that you’ve developed and apply them in our own workplace.”
B: That’s great.
L: Going back to your question around training, in Houston, one of the things that we’ve done that we’re really proud of is that we opened up an operating site there. We have been very busy building houses for clients who have come to us to request support or who have been referred to us. But in addition to that, in Houston, what we’ve really tried to do is expand and make sure that we’re sharing and training and advising the government, in other words, tapping into all five of our interventions to have the biggest scale impact that we could there. And so for us, again, it’s not about how many houses we rebuild or families we get home, it’s about how we can work with other nonprofits, government agencies, funders to align and have the greatest impact.
A really good example of this is we were very fortunate, JJ Watt raised a lot of money for Houston, a lot of money for Houston, in fact. He granted SBP 8 ½ million dollars. We said, “Wow, thank you so much. This is amazing,” and then we had this discussion internally and we said we can take this 8 ½ million dollars and keep it and just rebuild houses of clients who come to us or we can take this 8 ½ million dollars, use some of it for clients who come to us, and then grant some of it away to other nonprofits in the Houston area. And while we’re at it, let’s also help them by giving them some AmeriCorps members and some training as well. And so the combination of that approach, of us doing it ourselves, us awarding money to other organizations, providing AmeriCorps members, providing training, I think is we’ve really seen how we can have a much, much, much larger impact. Right now, in Houston, we have eight we call them placement sites, but basically partner organizations that are using our model, that have borrowed a lot of our best practices. The impact that we’re having in Houston as a result of that is much greater than if we had done it alone.
Another really good example in Houston is we, in partnership with the Greater Houston Community Foundation, developed a tool called Harvey Home Connect. It’s a piece of software that helps case managers identify clients who need help. The software tool itself is really smart and it’s well-designed and it has a lot of features in it that we had not seen before in other communities, but the other piece of it that we added is helping to train the case managers and the team at Harvey Home Connect on what success really looks like. Success isn’t just using the tool, success isn’t just inputting data or client information into the tool, but success is referring clients to organizations that can provide them with the services that they need. I know that sounds so obvious, but so often, we see success as being defined as people just using a tool or having a certain number of cases. And so we’ve seen these ways that you can work together with other organizations to have a much larger impact than we could by ourselves.
B: I think that’s the epitome of a good system, that it’s focused on the end recipient or consumer or customer, in this case, that you guys realized that you couldn’t do it alone or you could be more effective by working together with other organizations and achieving your mission. Even though you could have easily grown your organization and said, “Look how good we’re doing individually,” you guys were able to look beyond there and say what is best for the people who are in need. I think that’s really great and shows the kind of maturity you guys have gone through to start thinking outside of an organization.
L: We really owe it to Toyota and this whole concept of yokoten. I don’t know that, without their support and gently, firmly nudging us in this direction, not just around best practice sharing but all the lessons that we’ve learned from them, that we would be at this point. We’re really grateful for everything that we’ve learned and I’m excited to talk to you and the listeners here to say this can be replicated. There are so many people out there who have this amazing skill set that can help a lot of organizations, who can then turn around and help a lot of people who really need those services.
B: That’s a great transition. What kind of recommendations would you give for somebody who’s looking to work with a nonprofit or approach some about their skills around this? they may not be as excellent as the TSSC folks, but that can bring some value to the organization. How would you recommend that they approach or work with a nonprofit?
L: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s probably going to vary from nonprofit to nonprofit, but I think if people feel like there’s alignment around the mission and that someone is going to come in and volunteer their time or their sense with an organization, the nonprofit wants to know that they care about the mission. And there should be some alignment around values, sort of generally, what do we all care about. And I think there also has to be this approach where you’ve got to be patient.
I’m so grateful that the people from Toyota were patient with me because it’s one thing to tell someone what to do; it’s another thing entirely to show them, to give them an opportunity to practice, and to continue to really fine-tune and hone their skills. That’s what it takes to change behavior and not just within nonprofits, but I think just in human beings in general. It’s all about changing behavior and so you’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to build trust. You want to make sure that people are listening and hearing what you have to say and see how that’s going to value. I also think and really, really appreciated that there also points a time where you’ve got to be brutally honest. When you have a trusting relationship with someone, you can be brutally honest and it’s not about feelings; it’s really about how do you drive the organization or the business forward.
B: I think I remember reading something about attributes of the volunteers that you were looking for as well. I think around the ability to change or something like that, that fits into the culture a little bit better. Was there something around if there were, maybe it was AmeriCorps volunteers I was remembering that you are looking for, they would be looking to be flexible in their role. There were a couple of different attributes.
L: I would say, in our AmeriCorps members and also in our staff and for people who are investing time with the organization, we want people who have a flexible mindset. We’re looking for folks who have grit because the reality is the type of work that we do, we need people who are curious, they’re quick to learn, and then they’re willing to go out and try things and make mistakes. This is really important but we need people who are able to balance the heart and the head, we need people who are empathetic, we also need people who are problem-solving and process-oriented and I think that balance of the heart and the head is really what can make for an effective organization.
B: We talked about a for-profit business coming and helping a nonprofit, but what could a for-profit business learn from how you operate SBP and what would you think could be something that they could adopt into their business to be either better engaging of their employees or staff or better serving their customers?
L: It makes me think immediately of Farmers Insurance. They’re one of our great partners. We started working with them some years ago. We were introduced through Zurich, who is another one of our great partners. What Farmers has done, since the significant tornado that was in Joplin back in 2011, is that they have sent Farmers employees to SBP operating sites to volunteer for anywhere from a week to two weeks at a time. It’s become so popular that Farmers employees now have to apply and be selected to go and volunteer at SBP sites. What Farmers have seen is that the volunteer experience is so powerful and meaningful for their team because it aligns so closely with the type of work that they do anyway, that it has significantly improved employee engagement. In fact, I just learned recently that there’s entire Farmers Facebook pages dedicated to their team volunteering with SBP and now, it’s gotten so big that they’re out volunteering with us every single week of the year around the country at our different operating sites.
And so it’s this partnership that started off with an idea about how can we send our employees to go help with this organization that we like that has expanded because they see the value that it’s bringing to their company as well as the value that it’s bringing to the communities that really need people like Farmers employees out there volunteering in their community.
B: I think that’s an untapped area that they don’t realize the business value of doing that. They see that, yeah, it looks good in their corporate reports and stuff, but I think they underestimate the impact it has on the engagement with the employee and the likelihood that they’ll stick around because they’re getting these opportunities to do that, so that’s great to hear.
L: Yeah, very much so. It very much aligns with the employer-of-choice model and if people have opportunities to really be themselves at work, and for a lot of people, that means giving back to their communities or serving or volunteering in some way, then I think people feel like they can show up at work and be their real selves.
B: What keeps you going personally with SBP and what drives you to continue this work and put in all the hours and effort behind this? What is the rewarding part of it on your end?
L: I think back to one of the very first people that I met when I came to New Orleans. I met a veteran who was in his mid-80s. When we first came to New Orleans, we were volunteering at this place right outside of New Orleans that was offering three hot meals a day. This gentleman was so proud and he had various pins on his cap from different civic organizations that he had been in and military organizations that he was a part of or veterans’ organizations that he was a part of. Every day, he would walk through the food line with a walker and his tray and I would try to help him and he would say, “No, no, no, I’ve got it.”
Anyway, we would sit at meals and we would talk and I got to know him and why he cared so much about moving back to this community that, at the time, had been absolutely devastated. It wasn’t until about the end of the second week of us sharing meals every day that he sat down and he just started bawling at this meal. He said, “Liz, I don’t understand why no one will help me.” I didn’t know what he was talking about and I found out, during the course of this meal, that he would go across the street to FEMA every day after breakfast and lunch and ask for a trailer and, somehow, the coordination wasn’t working. There were 60,000 FEMA trailers sitting in a lot in I think it was Mississippi somewhere, not that far away, and they just couldn’t get the trailers to people who needed them so they could set them up in front of the properties and really start the rebuilding process. He just said, “I’ve served my country and I feel like people have just walked away from us.” It was just like the hopelessness that this man was feeling. He was so proud to have been able to buy a home, raise his family there, be successful, and he was at the stage in his life where he should have been enjoying his golden years and, instead, he felt like no one was paying any attention to him.
I wish that I could tell you the story of Mr. Andre was unique. The reality is that we see people reaching the breaking point every day in disaster-impacted communities, and so if the work that we can do can help prevent that and help a dad or a grandparent or mom from reaching their breaking point, it becomes so much more about humanity and dignity than it does just about the building houses. And so that’s what keeps me going.
We also have an incredible team. We get to celebrate a lot of successes, I get to see a lot of people develop and grow and challenge themselves and, in the process, serve a lot of communities that really need help. So I feel, in some ways, I feel really grateful to get to do this work, in other ways, I wish we never had to do this work because I wish the disasters just weren’t happening, but the reality is that they are and they’re happening more frequently. So we really appreciate an opportunity to get to talk to you and folks who are listening and, hopefully, some will want to come join us or maybe they’ll be inspired and want to go help other organizations.
B: How can people get the Getting Home book? What’s the best way?
L: The book is available on Amazon, both paperback and e-book.
B: The audiobook is coming down the line?
L: Audiobooks will be coming to your neighborhood soon. [It’s now available!]
B: Okay. But in the meantime, they can get the hard copy or the e-book.
B: I’ve also seen articles on lean.org, so we can maybe link up some of those. I think Zach wrote a few things about the book. The St. Bernard Project website, what’s the address for that?
L: It’s sbpusa.org, as in St. Bernard Project, sbpusa.org.
B: Any other things you wanted to share or promote or tell the listeners about?
This: Yeah. We also have a bunch of training guides and materials that are available at SBPprotects.org. There’s e-learning tools on there around how to mitigate risk, so there’s topics on everything from flood insurance and homeowner’s insurance to a variety of different topics and they’re all free. And so companies can put them in their learning management system, individuals can just check them out on our website. We think they’re really helpful tools and we would love for people to take the courses and give us feedback.
B: That’s great. Thanks for doing that. I think that would be really useful.
L: And if anyone has questions – businesses, individuals, organizations – please reach out. We’d love to be a support if we can, share what we’ve learned, and we love feedback.
B: And what’s the best way that someone can connect with you?
L: Email would be great. My email is lmccartney, just like Paul, @sbpusa.org.
B: Liz, thank you so much for your time. This was wonderful. I highly recommend people check out the book. I think it’s a great read, there’s a lot of great examples in there, good pictures, and it will give you not only good ideas if you’re working with a nonprofit, but all of those can be applied to their own work, whether they work for a for-profit company or things that they can take home and apply there as well. Definitely keep up all the great work you guys have been doing and I really appreciate your time.
L: Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation.
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