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Achieving Excellence Impact – Ann Houston, The Neighborhood Developers

Ann Houston

Nonprofits can help leaders transform their communities

The Boston area is always changing, with many up-and-coming neighborhoods. For nonprofits such as The Neighborhood Developers, where I’ve been CEO since 2003, the question is how can we go along with change in a way that benefits the existing community while also bringing in fresh energy, investment and opportunity?
That was the challenge I took on when I entered the NeighborWorks Achieving Excellence program taught in part at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. The Achieving Excellence framework enabled me to establish a plan for the Box District that would enhance the opportunities for current residents and bring in fresh ideas and vitality.

The peer-to-peer learning I had access to within the Achieving Excellence program and the one-to-one coaching also available from the experts hired by NeighborWorks America drove me to develop the public, private, and non-profit partnerships that would transform the Box District into the jewel that it is now.
"Achieving Excellence taught me to focus on outcomes and proactively problem-solve. More nonprofits should support leadership programs; if they do, these are the kinds of outcomes they can expect."
Ann Houston, Executive Director, The Neighborhood Developers; and Graduate, Achieving Excellence

Creating strong cross-sector partnerships was key to my learning but a crucial component was the conversations I had with my peers several times each month. I was able to call classmates and try ideas out on them, and therefore see what worked and what didn’t.

But it wasn’t easy. While nonprofit community development leaders like myself often work via partnerships, we’re often too time-crunched and cash-strapped to take advantage of this kind of program. The program was truly a transformational leadership course and I was only able to participate through grants from NeighborWorks America and its supporters. Achieving Excellence taught me to deliver impact rather than projects, and I applied this knowledge to my work creating the Box District and serving the Boston community.

So how does Achieving Excellence work? Achieving Excellence works with participants to articulate a performance challenge. My challenge was to build a mixed-income neighborhood that was designed in a way to encourage people to connect with each other. Now eight years later we’ve nearly completed the neighborhood in close partnership with the city of Chelsea and a private developer, Mitchell Properties, and built 300 units of housing. We ensured the State’s new Silverline rapid transit bus line included a walking path connecting the neighborhood to the waterfront.
Previously the Box District was Chelsea’s most concentrated area of poverty and crime and an underutilized industrial district. The newly revitalized neighborhood is now a vibrant, safe, mixed- income, residential community that residents are proud to call home.
 
The lessons from Achieving Excellence have provided a foundation for my work:  when foreclosed properties began to erode the progress we had made in our neighborhood – as well as many similar communities across the state – it was clear that trying to solve the problem alone wouldn’t work. I took the proven lessons around collaboration and partnership I learned while working to enhance the Box District and applied them to respond to the foreclosure crisis. I co-chaired a task force of 180 people representing 76 cross-sector organizations to create response to the crisis based on the Achieving Excellence- Performance Challenge methods. We hired author and consultant Douglas K. Smith from the Achieving Excellence program to guide our work and used the program’s framework. The work of this task force became the basis for the state’s response to foreclosed properties.
 
Achieving Excellence taught me to focus on outcomes and proactively problem-solve. More nonprofits should support leadership programs; if they do, these are the kinds of outcomes they can expect.
- Ann Houston, Executive Director, The Neighborhood Developers; and Graduate, Achieving Excellence
 
For additional information about Achieving Excellence, call (800) 438-5547 or (202) 760-4000, or e-mail aeprograms@nw.org.