Collective Leadership for a Promising Future
As part of our 50th anniversary theme “Our Neighbors, Our Communities,” all three CEOs from throughout CommonBond’s history came together for a conversation about our past and how it can inform our future. Their dialogue reminds us that a commitment to justice and to community, in all its forms, must always sit at the heart of our work.
Over the course of CommonBond’s 50-year history, we’ve had only three CEOs lead the organization: Joe Errigo (1971 – 2006); Paul Fate (2006 – 2014); and Deidre Schmidt (2014 – present). In honor of our 50th anniversary, we invited them to come together to reflect on pivotal moments and key attributes of the organization that make us who we are today—and that help inform the future of CommonBond.
As you might imagine, their conversation ran the gamut—but three significant themes emerged: working toward justice; remaining committed to our housing & services model; and expanding support for CommonBond’s mission. We’re pleased to share insight from our leaders in honor of half a century devoted to building stable homes, strong futures, and vibrant communities.
Working toward justice
Joe: From the very beginning of the organization through today, something that really stuck with me is the social justice foundation of the organization. We had decided on housing as our goal and mission, but early on, it was quite a challenge to figure out what else that social piece encompassed. And of course the social piece was that it’s going to be more than housing. It's easy to talk about social justice at the core, but sometimes harder to put it into practice and keep that focus consistent.
Paul: I agree, social justice will always be critical to the life and health of CommonBond. I happened to grow up a preacher's kid, and I kind of grew up around the language and the belief that the true testament of any society is looking at how the most vulnerable are faring. And I think CommonBond has done a terrific job paying attention to that.
Deidre: We're still pushing ourselves to do better and to do more in the fight for justice—not to ever rest, while recognizing we are imperfect and always have room to grow and learn. Paul, I want to thank you for setting an employee Inclusion Council in motion during your tenure. It was one of the things that attracted me to CommonBond. When we first started talking about the possibility of me being in this role, I felt like that move by the organization was an important signal. And, you know, when I think about the evolution that we've been watching of this organization—with these roots in social justice and then the growth and continued evolution—I think the equity work we do internally at CommonBond is critical to being a workplace where everyone feels they can bring their full selves, and that translates to residents being able to do the same at CommonBond’s housing communities.
Joe: Exactly. There are moments all through our history that require standing up and saying this is the reason why we're here. We have to address any kind of social injustice. It’s one of the things that resonated with me in the very beginning and still does today.
Deidre: Right. And we are committed to making sure we remain introspective about how we're doing on racial equity and diversity of all kinds, and retaining that internal reflection of the equity values that were so important to our founders and that remain important to folks working at CommonBond today.
Remaining committed to our housing & services model
Joe: Doing our work in the right way meant we had to operate and manage the housing we built or preserved. Getting into housing management was a big decision. For the first couple of years at the organization, we had private management companies managing our properties. But they didn't get the social piece at all—the emphasis on people.
So after we got those guys out, we had to figure out what we meant by the social piece—but like I said we knew ultimately it was going to be about ‘more than housing.’ And that evolved as well. Over the years we gradually hired more people with different skill sets, and the ‘housing and services’ work transformed largely into what it is today.
Paul: Yes, and when you think about CommonBond’s portfolio—from new townhomes to renovated hotels to renovated stables—and the whole variety of funding streams, it's pretty amazing that CommonBond has been able to tackle all of those quite different kinds of developments and financing and make it work … all in support of so many residents with different goals and needs. And it's a testament, again, to the resiliency and nimbleness that Joe set in motion, and Deidre, that you've taken to a whole different level with a variety of things, including NOAH [naturally occurring affordable housing].
Deidre: Absolutely. CommonBond is really trying to care for both the people and the places that we call CommonBond communities. So we are definitely a real estate development and property management organization. But real estate is the tool we're using to accomplish impact in communities and on individual lives. And, we're doing different things than we did before. For example, being able to acquire and preserve NOAH [housing that hasn't previously been subsidized] was a pretty big shift for us. It caused us to have to think really differently about risk and it caused us to have to find new financial resources to make those possible.
But we could only do that, and be credible because of the work that Paul, you and your team did during the 2008 capital campaign, and Joe, people trusted us because of the efforts and confidence generated under your 35 years of leadership. And ultimately it truly expands our housing and services model in important new ways.
Broadening and expanding support for our mission
Joe: There was always a natural tension between the business and social goals of the organization. It's always going to be there, and our job was to bridge that gap, to bring the silos together, to make it look seamless. We can't just talk to social justice advocates or just the business people. We have to talk to both sides and help them understand the other piece of it. Our job was to do that and to broaden the base of understanding of how all the different elements of our work come together—and could help expand the base of support.
Paul: An inflection point for me was coming in to lead CommonBond’s first major capital campaign. After a great deal of work, we launched that campaign in October of 2008, just as the massive recession was hitting. We knew how critical it was to increase production of more affordable housing in our communities, and to enhance Advantage Services for CommonBond residents.
I remember specifically when we did the campaign announcement in downtown Minneapolis, our Board chair John Berg standing up and saying this may be the absolute worst time to start a campaign, but it's also absolutely the most important time to start a campaign. And it was all about the fact that the need of folks—for affordable housing and services, and stable communities—was more profound and important than ever. And I’ll add, from that campaign, one of the pleasant surprises is we were able to find more working capital than we anticipated. And the endowment we started and grew proved to be an important annual source of funds that could be put into Advantage Services to support residents.
Deidre: Absolutely, and those were all important pieces that have helped us reach our next stage, which I think is this indirect impact, our ability to influence. This organization has gotten to a reach and scale that allows us to have influence on much bigger systems. Knowing some of the groundbreaking work CommonBond did with Ernst & Young on studying the social return on investment (SROI) of our eviction prevention work – that’s an example of changing the way people think. And it's not just changing one or two lives—which is of course important and has a multigenerational impact—but also leads to a foundation, a platform on which we have a bigger lever. We can make change beyond what we can do with the product of our own labor. The scale and community influence become larger.
Joe: I want to emphasize that I think it's a very important point. The things you can do now are so much bigger. We can't think of limitations on that influence or impact.
Deidre: I'm just curious—if I asked both of you to think 10 years down the road, and imagine somebody sits down with you and says “wow, CommonBond is a major success.” And you say, “Yeah, I think it is,” what would be the things that have evolved to make it so great? What do you hope to see from us in 10 years?
Joe: Ten years from now, CommonBond could be building partnerships with the healthcare industry. Because health and housing are critically important to each other, that would be what I consider a place for a major breakthrough.
Paul: I like that idea a lot, because there are a lot of resources in the healthcare systems and people. And more importantly, I agree that physical and mental health plus housing has everything to do with quality of life.
Also, I would say 10 years from now, I think the testimony will be: Are we continuing some of the things that we've talked about today as key ingredients? Is CommonBond continuing to adapt and adjust and be resilient, and being even more impactful in the policy arena?
Paul: Joe, I want to thank you for your incredible legacy and commitment to keeping the organization grounded in social justice. And, I have to say, it's heartening to know, Deidre, that you're at the helm and you've just been able to take things to a whole different level of impact and sophistication.
Joe: Deidre, to you and Paul, I couldn't be more happy about what's happened here at CommonBond. The two of you continued what we started—you’ve taken it to new places, literally, and to new heights with new achievements. I'm very proud of what you've done with the organization, mission, and yourselves to make it what it is today, and I want to thank you for that.
Deidre: Thank you so much, both of you, for your incredible work for so many years, and for the important reminder of how we're still rooted in the original aspirations for a more equitable and just society. It feels good to have that reaffirmed.
Joe: And now we have it recorded!!