The New Network Leader
The New Network Leader
This series highlights the work of seven leading "network entrepreneurs," who are generating systems-level social impact in environmental conservation, education, economic development, and beyond.

For nearly two decades, a critical affordable-housing policy tool eluded the citizens of Seattle, Washington. The primary players—private developers, affordable housing advocates, and elected officials—engaged in a deep power struggle that yielded nothing but mistrust and entrenchment.

In late 2014, the stage was set to force a change to the stalemate. The city council passed a resolution requiring that all residential and commercial real-estate developers contribute toward more affordable housing by paying a fee. This maneuver set in motion a firestorm of emotions and lawsuits, widening the chasm and deepening the skepticism. People wondered if anything other than a long, protracted legal battle lay ahead.

As executive director of the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County (HDC), my resolve to follow the four nonprofit network principles discussed in this series would be tested as never before.

Learning the Network Principles

Fortunately, my previous 24 years of work with Habitat for Humanity (HFH) had taught me to approach significant challenges—like the lack of access to safe, quality, affordable housing—with a network mindset. In fact, HFH provides a great case study of these principles. On one hand, the organization has a hugely popular brand and provides an irresistible method of engaging the community.  This creates a platform from which to operate that is truly unique in the nonprofit sector. On the other hand, the need for its products and services is growing at a staggering pace. It became evident that a strategy based on organizational growth alone was not enough. I began to question what it would really take to scale the response to meet the need.

Two situations made me realize that the solution would come through a network approach. The first was a meeting with a small group of field staff, who worked with me to support 256 HFH affiliates in seven states. After years of intense capacity-building support, training, pass-through funding, and miles and miles of travel, we realized we were simply helping those affiliates hold to a level outcome. The second was HFH’s response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Our traditional response could not meet the scope, complexity, and urgency of the need.

In both of these cases, the network approach offered the best solution to achieving scale. The shift, while easy to embrace conceptually, was difficult to implement in reality. It required mission-driven leaders who put a premium on establishing and nurturing relationships based on trust, humility, and mutual benefit. It also required a radical change in rewards and affirmations from funders and boards. A new system, consistent with subordinating the organization’s brand to the common interest, became paramount.

We needed to replace the self-interest that viewed our organization as the hub with a common interest that placed the mission at the center. That meant we needed to act as catalysts, not solely as service providers, and certainly not as competitors to likeminded organizations.

We had to work together to change the systems that fed the problem and that sustained barriers to ending it. We had to learn how to be a node rather than a hub.

Forging a Grand Bargain

Fast-forward to 2015 and the affordable housing crisis in Seattle. I now lead the HDC, a 112-member association comprising nonprofits, businesses, lenders, and funders focused on the vision of a King County “where all people will live with dignity in safe, healthy, and affordable homes within communities of opportunity.”

HDC was in a perfect position to help the community move past the entrenchment that had for so long prevented us from achieving our shared housing goals. We partnered with Puget Sound Sage, a local nonprofit focused on social justice issues, to build a coalition called “Growing Together.”  The 60-plus coalition members—from labor, environment, faith, race and equity, and affordable housing—kept a shared focus on overcoming the displacement and staggering housing costs that were eroding vitality and equity in a city that takes pride in its progressiveness.

The collective pressure of Growing Together’s members was substantial. It gave us the influence we needed to sit at the table with a group of 28 community leaders invited by the Mayor to create Seattle’s new Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). After 10 months, this group produced 65 recommendations. The outcome of full implementation will be the creation of a net 20,000 homes for low-income households in the next decade. This will require that we move at a pace three times our current performance, which is already far greater than other major cities.

Getting agreement on the details of 64 of those 65 recommendations was a massive undertaking. All parties had to compromise and focus on the broader goal. Coalitions had to navigate the diverse positions of their own constituents. Yet even this close to the goal line, the result was no different than it had been for all previous attempts in the past decades: deadlock.

But we didn’t give up. A small group of us, including representatives from both sides, stuck with the network principles. Acting beyond our self-interest, we forged a “Grand Bargain.” The agreement laid the foundation for the city council to pair contemporary housing policies with incentives to engage private developers in producing and funding 6,000 of the 20,000-home target.

The Grand Bargain represents a collective shift from self-interest to common interest. No one got to declare themselves the “winner.” We must now continue to replace the lack of trust that stood as the biggest obstacle with a willingness to let go, so that the community can succeed.

This is a simplification of an intense process and complex set of decisions. But ultimately the value is this: What can happen now that a desire for “lasting peace” has been declared? A new coalition of coalitions, “Seattle for Everyone,” is working through all of the challenges associated with shepherding the recommendations through the process from ordinances to execution and results.

A constellation of players and resources so long embroiled in battle now has the opportunity to achieve far more than any individually could ever have. And relationships have emerged that can keep us all grounded in a larger mission and a bolder vision—for the greater good.