Our clients include land banks and nonprofit organizations tasked with identifying, acquiring, stabilizing, and conveying property for productive reuse. They tend to have small staffs and modest budgets (2021 NLBN Summit). Their staff and boards deal with complex property challenges, so they have to have working knowledge of complex topics like zoning and land use, property taxes and tax sales, foreclosure, property rehab, maintenance, construction, housing development, financing, etc. Theirs is not simple work.
Community revitalization organizations interface with a wide variety of audiences: elected officials, builders and developers, community groups and residents, banks and foundations, and more. In addition to technical skills, they need a myriad of soft skills in communicating, managing people and relationships, and working collaboratively. They also need to understand how to prioritize and organize their business activity. If they can’t do that, they risk being consumed by the “activity of the day” and will end up feeling like they are stuck. That’s because they probably are.
We created ePropertyPlus to boost the capacity of small organizations by automating repetitive tasks and organizing information to save staff time, increase efficiency and accountability, and improve users’ ability to serve diverse audiences and stakeholders. We’re proud to see the amazing work our clients have been able to achieve, and we’ve applied our deep domain expertise from working with the nation’s leading land banks into what we deliver. But we are learning that it may not be enough, especially for smaller, emerging organizations who need much more than software. In response, we are looking into offering a new service we are calling “Interim Staffing.”
First, a little backstory…
eProperty Innovations General Manager, Brian White, was responsible for setting up one of the nation’s biggest and most ambitious land banks. He arrived to that task with 15 years’ experience in community development, having managed one nonprofit community development from the ground up and supervised two major organization rebuilding efforts. He recalls his days starting a land bank:
“I thought I was prepared for the challenge, but I learned nothing can really prepare you for a job like that, except to have done the job previously.
Setting up the land bank was a massive challenge. I always wore 3 or 4 hats at the same time, and each day presented a new set of demands. I had to answer to a board and navigate three competing political relationships. Since the three political chiefs did not get along, I was always on someone’s losing team. I had to hire staff, set up operations, be the public face of the organization, and make sense of a massive inventory of distressed assets. To say that I multi-tasked does not do it justice. I would say I ‘multi-tasked my multi-tasking’.”
-Brian White, eProperty Innovations General Manager
Here are some lessons he learned that help inform how we are building out eProperty Solutions, which is what we call our strategic consulting services offering.
Lesson 1: Time is the Enemy
First, new organizations need time to get their processes in order and test out strategies. Every group has a “theory of change” about what works, but new organizations that are putting things into practice for the first time need time for trial and error, evaluation, and analysis. In other words, a patient and deliberative approach helps you establish a solid foundation, build relationships, and develop stakeholder confidence.
At the same time, you are also expected to get moving, and quickly. Every new organization was formed to address a problem. Time is the enemy for many reasons – you are burning funds, face critical deadlines (like elections and funder timetables), and, of course, properties deteriorate with age.
New organizations need to have a bias for action and an appetite for risk. A bias for action means always moving forward and operating with urgency, but not recklessness. Staff are going to make mistakes, and experience is the best teacher. The only way you gain experience is by doing stuff.
Lesson 2: Understand the Pipeline
Most of our client organizations acquire property at the bottom of a property waterfall. The waterfall may include properties that defaulted to the county for nonpayment of taxes, properties subject to municipal liens, dilapidated properties that need to be razed, and properties that a private party wants to donate. The pipeline might include zombie properties and properties that have been abandoned. Converting these multiple streams of property into an actionable pipeline requires time for scenario planning, budgeting, and discussions with key stakeholders.
While all of that is going on, you’re dealing with residents asking for help, builders looking for inventory, mayors demanding progress, and city council members asking “why is your budget so big when you don’t have any property?” Level-setting explanations are lengthy, and you need to keep those stakeholders interested and engaged. So it’s a balance between paralysis by analysis, where you risk losing stakeholder confidence and momentum, and bad, costly decision blunders.
Lesson 3: The Unicorn Staff Person
A land bank’s staff needs to have housing and community development expertise, organizational development and management skills, and the ability to simultaneously manage political and community relationships. We also know that most land banks have less than two staff members. It will take some amazing luck to find that entire skillset in two people. We also see land banks try to make it work with student interns and volunteers. Most often, they get what they pay for, as the saying goes.
We developed a chart of operational responsibilities to illustrate the functional roles that a land bank needs to account for, whether it’s with staff, consultants, volunteers, etc. It encompassed a lot more than two staff members.
Over the last few years, we’ve leaned in to offer help through what we call ‘Value Added Services’ projects. These are projects where we help new and emerging organizations move from where they are today to where they are hoping to be soon. Our projects have involved:
We think we’ve punched above our weight for a small company, but we can do more. We need to do more.
We’re working on what we call an ‘Interim Staffing Services’ model. The basic idea is to have (our) experienced staff available on demand to fill in gaps for land banks (or other partners) that have some staff, but not enough. The main area where we can fill gaps is in leveraging ePropertyPlus to drive operational efficiency. But we think this can potentially extend to managing service programs, providing assistance to help improve marketing, or developing new fundable programs.
Our goal is to make using our team “on demand” a more cost-effective and practical solution for partners needing a boost, especially when compared to having to hire and train new full-time staff members.
We’ll have more to say about our ‘Interim Staffing Services’ in the weeks ahead. We know it will involve a fee-for-service model. We think it will focus on leveraging ePropertyPlus, for sure, but it might go in other directions, too. We’re thinking it through.
If you want to help us, share your thoughts on what your organization really needs. Chances are, we’ve been there and done that. Set up a time to chat- we’d be happy to share what advice we can.