Our entire global community is feeling the impact of changes being made due to Coronavirus.
As we face these challenges together, we are highlighting services available to help you make adjustments, with a special Q&A series on Facebook.
In this virtual chat, we talk with Vicki Hamilton-Allen of Habitat for Humanity Capital Region.
Julie: Welcome back to our special Facebook life series Expert Connexions. I’m Julie Holton, I’m the Founder and Principal Strategist of mConnexions Marketing Agency. So grateful to have you with us and so honored to be sharing so many stories with you as we all deal with this COVID-19 pandemic. We’re covering issues that matter to our community both personally and professionally by reaching out and interviewing experts and I’m so excited for this next conversation today. Vicki Hamilton Allen is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Capital Region and a very dear friend of mine who I have interviewed before about leadership and serving our community. Vicki thank you so much for joining me.
Vicki: Julie thank you for having me. It’s wonderful that you’re creating space for so many of our peers to have a voice during this very difficult time.
Julie: Thanks Vicki. Well and I’m ready to just jump right in because there are so many things to talk about with you and first I want to ask you know focusing on Habitat for Humanity, how do you know your organization responding to COVID-19?
Vicki: You know I’m really glad you asked that question. Habitat for Humanity is a very complex entity and I think maybe if I just walk through and help those who are watching understand exactly what business sectors converge at Habitat for Humanity. You know of course we build houses. Everybody knows we build houses and that’s exciting and that’s the fruit of all of our labor, but you know that makes us a construction company. We also make homes affordable through extending mortgages, which makes us a financial services agency. We are regulated and mandated to follow all of the same rules that other industries of the same sectors are abided by. We own and operate to restores. Those are retail outlets where people donate items and we have new items available for sale at affordable rates to their community, which means we are in fact a retail operator. So with that being said we offer education opportunities for people financial literacy training, home maintenance training, and with all of that means that we are case managing folks who are moving through our programs and we mobilize thousands of volunteers a year at Habitat for Humanity. People love that piece, but that makes us a human services agency. So all that and we’re folded into this beautiful envelope of a 501C3 making us a nonprofit organization and we are an independent business entity and not a lot of people know that. They think that we’re part of the Greater structure of Habitat for Humanity International and that we are all one unit, but we are very separate which makes us vulnerable in this type of crisis because when we have to take actions in response to a crisis such as shutting down the restores, shutting down our construction sites, those are our vital financial revenue streams and when they are shut down it puts us at risk of failure and closure just like any other small business in our market or in our nation at this time.
Julie: Vicki gosh you know I’m glad that you gave us some context for that because it’s you know at first thought it’s Oh Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit and of course you are, but you have so many other complexities that you’ve been talking about. All of these other industries and I imagine this is a lot of information to be keeping up with especially as various orders or um advisories are given for each individual you know in the industry that you are a part of. How are you knowing as the CEO dealing with all of this? How are you able to keep all of this straight first of all but then be able to work through it and make some of these tough decisions?
Vicki: It’s been a really interesting experience so far and I say that because I am constantly trying to balance many things and so I am responsible for the organization in this area of risk capacity of course I am. I’m also responsible for operations, but you know I have a team that props me up. My team does all the hard work and you know I get the benefit of sometimes being the person that does these interviews while others are kind of propping me up and I appreciate them so much for everything they do. With that being said I have to be very mindful of the impact I would have on my team if I were to make quick sharp decisions. So I have been very deliberate with my actions and I have been drinking from the same fire hoses that everybody else in the community has been and I say that with like heart but the reality is that we are having acts that are being enabled and signed into action within 24 hour periods, we have had legislation change, policies just updating, and so it is difficult to stay on top of that and we are members of the Home Builders Association. We’re members of different institutions that will help us ensure that we have the best information for that business sector that relates to our Habitat for Humanity and so I have been trying to attend all of those calls, sit on plenty of zooms, I kind of cajoled a little this morning that I’m going to put zoom on my resume because it’s a skill set that I didn’t necessarily have before but I feel like I’m sharpening that up. What’s important here is making sure that as a leader we’re taking in as much information as possible to make the best informed decisions at the time we’re making those decisions. I say that because I work also with an HR consultant who has replaced her standard headers on her policy documents with time and date stamps and I had three versions of the same policy within a matter of 36 hours and each of them started March 23rd at 9 a.m. and March 24th at 10:00 a.m. March 24th at 3:00 p.m. so as new policies and acts are being enabled it’s affecting businesses and those who are consultants are trying to consume the information very rapidly and then send it back out in manageable bite sizes and so I would say that I am currently at the buffet of information.
Julie: That’s a good way of putting it in the buffet of information. I like that.
Vicki: I’m trying to keep my spirits intact whilst making some tough decisions, but you know when you ask me the question about what actions I’ve taken and of course I’m trying to educate myself through all options available but I’m also kind of trying to balance myself between the two trains of thoughts. My professional business training tells me I need to act on my fiduciary responsibilities, secure all cash, cut all necessary like unnecessary expenses, but you know I have a responsibility as I said earlier I have an amazing team to consider the Wellness of my team and what the impact of any decisions I’m making would be and also I have to balance that with the long-term viability of the organization and what I’d like to remind my peers is that long-term viability of an organization is not really just financial. If you abandon your staff because of necessity, it is a very difficult decision and I understand how difficult that is, but at the same time are you going to have your staff return to you the minute that you can get back up and running and how long will it take you to be able to gain traction enough to catch up to where you need to be at that time and so all of these need to be considered when leading an organization.
Julie: Absolutely and Vicki I know you and I were talking and I was sharing this with you I’ve had a lot of very heartfelt conversations with other nonprofit leaders, other business owners who like you care very deeply for their teams and for their staff and my heart goes out to everyone because these are very difficult decisions to make and I love that you do lead with your heart. That you know and I tell anyone who knows Vicki I mean anyone who knows Vicky knows that she has a very brilliant mind when it comes to all of the business logistics and figuring out you know what needs to happen and when but there’s also this whole human component that these are the people we love the people, that are on our teams, and they are not people that we want to see come into hardship or you know or to be off of our teams. You know selfishly we want to keep everyone on our teams and so I love Vicki you know some of what you’re saying about looking at the long-term and I know as you and I were talking part of this information overload as you were talking about this buffet of information is looking to see what help will be available. Many of those big decisions are still being made, we’ve seen some you know come out in the form of the stimulus relief package. Others that will still be in process for some time to come and so Vicki you’ve talked about kind of taking not a pause necessarily, but trying to gather this information and really sort through before making some of those tough decisions and I imagine that that’s not an easy thing to do when you still have the numbers that are right there and you have you restore that are closed and construction that is stopped. What is something that is maybe helping you through that might help your colleagues as well other nonprofits in the Greater Lansing area as you’re making some of those decisions?
Vicki: Well I think that one of the primary recommendations I’d offer at this time is to keep cool. You know that sounds very unlike how I would normally speak as you know, but what I’m trying to say is that if you have a financial situation where you cannot bear the load of your staff and you can’t remain solvent in a scenario where you’re trying to pay out. Then yes you have to make those decisions. If you have any wiggle room, I would say that your staff are your greatest assets and what you need to do is to be able to honor them best by doing your research now and so we did have the release of multiple options that are available for employers. My Habitat for Humanity happens to be under 50 employees so we moved into the small business sector and so there are grants available and there are various loans available. Some are forgivable and I would appeal to my peers to be able to do the reach of research to understand what they are eligible for as 501C3’s we are mandated to have audited financials every year. So I would recommend that you contact your CPA right now who will have a lot of valuable advice. They will be intimate with your financials and understand what the implications are and the urgency of your need and they will be really informed in terms of what’s happening. They’re getting updates that relate to the financial sector, almost kind of like a Reuters fee at this time and I reached out to my CPA as soon as things started getting a little ambiguous for me and I was directed to a webinar which I sat on and then I started to understand what options were available and as some options were available like leap in the Lansing area has been offering small business grants to the tune of $10,000. I’ve been learning that you know you may well apply for that and be granted it, but you have to be mindful that in many of these grant scenarios you can’t double dip. So if you are eligible and you get the benefit of the $10,000 grant, you may not be eligible for additional opportunities as they become available and what that means is that you have to go back to doing math and see what that means to you. Right now we’re waiting for the SBA to offer out the link for the – well there’s about six different acronyms I can throw out right now, but here’s the thing in layman’s terms there is going to be a loan that is going to be extended to businesses to be able to help them with payroll expenses, utility fees, mortgage interest costs, health care costs, to be able to support the staff that you have on board. With that being said it is extended to you structured as a loan based on two and a half months of your salary, of your payroll not your personal but of your company payroll based on 2019 financials. So you take your 2019 financials, divide it by 12, multiply it by two and a half, and then you have your raw figure. You’ll speak to your bank that worked with the SBA. With that being said we will likely only know Friday morning all the rules to the game. We understand right now what it is but we don’t know how it works yet. So you’ll have to work with your lender and find out exactly what that looks like. Once it’s extended as I said it’s structured as a loan but for eight weeks if you to pay your staff and stay true to making the payables from that money on all the items you’ve borrowed for, then it becomes a forgivable loan which sounds super appealing to me right now.
Julie: Absolutely. Money that we don’t have to pay back I think a lot of businesses and nonprofits that is going to be your first choice and Vicki you know everything you’re saying just reminds me of what some of our other experts have said as well which is have your care team, you know you kind of your professional support team, your own kind of mini advisory board, your CPA, your attorney, in some cases you know talking with these people who are each understanding that we’re all too consuming that’s information taking it all in and talked to the experts who are going to best understand each area as it impacts your business or your nonprofit. My next question for you is kind of outside of the financials. What concerns do you have right now outside of some of these financial concerns?
Vicki: Oh gosh. Oh Julie. I could give you a long list, but where I’ll start is what happens next. That’s on my mind continually and some of that relates to the day-to-day because things have been changing so rapidly that it’s not very clear to me from the start of the day to the end what my necessarily best path is. What we know at Habitat for Humanity is that people are being asked to stay home to stay safe. We know that people are taking shelter in unsafe places and so that is very distressing because we also know that people are suffering job losses at this time which means that it is very probable that we will have a significant increase in a request for services as soon as we are given the all-clear to resume normal activities or our new normal activities I should think and so what’s on my mind there is an increasing demand for services with a decreased readily available resources, so that worries me. I also have concerns for my team’s mental health at this time because I have to adjust. I mean when we first started moving into the environment where we’re working from home, I got VPN set up for the team and everyone thought it was great and then what started happening is I could sense an anxiety that was running through the team like electricity because folks were worried about of course all of the things people would be worried about right now in your own kind of self-experience, but equally in the greater context and so I didn’t want somebody to be feeling like gosh I’m not pulling my weight right now you know because the team’s still going. I started talking to team members calling each of them individually to see just how they’re feeling and to be able to adjust with them. So as I said a moment ago I initially asked them for a list of priorities when we started working from home and I took the opportunity this week to take their opportunities and just laser focus them on one or two of those items because I think right now it’s hard to feel a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction that you’ve started something and finished something and so it’s important to allow for to make the space for my team to have many successes. So they all feel that they’re able to satisfactorily do something and feel effective.
Julie: Gosh Vicki okay so this says a lot about your leadership style and that might seem like kind of an odd question to ask at a time like this, but I also think it’s a really important one to talk about and you and I have had many conversations over the years about leadership and about leadership styles and styles we like and don’t like and but what I hear a lot in the way you’re describing your interactions with your team and with what you’re doing for your organization says a lot about your leadership. Can you tell me you know tell me about your leadership style and talk through what your approach is and how maybe you’re focusing on that approach especially now?
Vicki: Okay so if my team’s on watching this they might have a different opinion. So I believe that I think that I adopt a servant leader approach. So I verbalize to think, I talk through things a lot, I ask the team to be able to contribute. I want to grow my team in so many ways. I usually put personal challenges when we define goals, so it might be reading specific books or taking courses because I really want to invest in the people on my team. You know growing your skill set for work is fantastic, but if you grow as a person you’ll feel a better fulfillment in your workplace. I also processed very quickly so I have to keep reminding myself to slow my role because some folks need things to percolate a little bit longer and so I try to ensure that I’m aware of what that looks like and I’m trying to get better at not coming up with big ideas and walking in a room saying this is what we’re doing because is terrifying to some people and some people will grab that and run and so I believe in team. I do not normally take the traditional hierarchical type of approach to leadership where we are on a structured kind of rising hierarchy and you know I just bark orders. I don’t think that’s necessarily my approach. I am going to protect my team and I like to believe that I always do the right thing for the right reasons. I make mistakes, we all do. I’m not afraid to say I don’t know something and I think that takes a strong character. A lot of people believe they need to know all the answers all the time because that’s why they’re the boss. Well you know then why bother having a team because we bring talent together to be able to create the best skilled, best armed, if I may, Fully-equipped. I don’t want to keep using these militant types of terms, but I was going to say army but team, tribe, group, of people that make us stronger United then independently and so I always believe that my leadership style is in conference and consultation with my team and that they are the experts that guide me.
Julie: I think it’s also really important to point out that when you’re talking about your team you touched on all of the industries that Habitat for Humanity encompasses, your team includes people from all of these industries. So you have a wide variety of personality styles, of skills, we’re not just talking people in an office who work on a non-profit, we’re also talking construction and retail and all of these other areas that you know that Habitat for Humanity is a part of and so and we have a comment here from Stephanie that I just want to point out because I completely agree Stephanie. She loves the idea of mini successes. Such great tips and what excellent leadership and I love that too I mean Vicky you talked about I think especially now more than ever we need to focus on what’s going well during our day because there are so many things that are not going well you know and the bigger picture of what’s happening right now and so I think those ideas of many successes and really embracing your team and acknowledging that is really important what would you for those who are watching too if you have any questions please feel free jump in, ask Vicki, she’s all ours for a little bit longer here. Vicki what would be some advice? I think that there are probably things that probably I know there are because I’m sure we’ve had conversations with people who are in leadership positions and find themselves struggling. Whether it’s a constant struggle or just a momentary struggle. I mean I think we all go through waves of feeling different feelings you know whether it be overwhelming, anxiety, stress, you know or all of the above. What’s your advice for leaders who feel their leadership kind of wavering at times? How do we get ourselves through this?
Vicki: That’s a question I ask myself each morning so I remember why I do what I do the first and foremost. One of the beauties of working for a non-profit is that I know that myself and my team are committed to making lives better for other people and if we weren’t doing that they would be left unattended, unnoticed, unvoiced, and so I’m motivated by our clients, our stakeholders in the community. In order to talk to my peers in terms of what to do, I would say that you need to focus on self-care and if you falter right now your team is going to lose its captain. Your ship is going to lose its captain. You know your all of the clichés they’re going to lose their leader and as a leader, a CEO, a wife, a sister, a mother, you know my job is to make sure that I’m paying attention to what’s going on around me and what’s happening in myself and I do have moments where I feel absolutely drained and I have nothing left and when I can see someone else feeling the same, something inside of me says okay Vicki just stand up that little bit taller, that little bit stronger, and be there for them and I noticed that those people who are in my inner circle do very much the same. So in order to preserve that I sometimes just have to switch off and it’s really hard in an environment where we are on this World Wide Web, you know the internet highway. We have access to everything at our fingertips and we live in this society where everything is instant and disposable and it’s very difficult for us to understand that we need to stay at home and be safe in order for the greater good and so if you’re asking me what I can ask my peers or tell my peers as advice, I would say take this time to be your best in small increments because you are not sitting in your office with people rolling into your door all day. You can take the opportunity to switch all your technology off and sit outside your door or even in your house in a dark space if you might. Whatever is your sort of Zen space, go to it and you can take those times out and just reflect or discharge because you can only continually take the rise of the energy until you can’t take it anymore and then you’re not going to be effective. So turn off and just if it’s five minutes, ten, even if it’s a whole hour, which it may be the world you’ll be saying in an hour? But it’s important that you do that for yourself and for your team because we’re all in this for the long run.
Julie: Absolutely and we don’t know what that’s going to look like as far as these current situations. You know the current you know of the stay-at-home situation, working remotely, we do know that it’s not ending anytime soon and so you’re right we need to look at the big picture. I love that message of taking care of yourself, finding time to recharge, be refreshed. Vicki what can we do to support you? What can our audience, our community do to help Habitat for Humanity right now?
Vicki: Thanks for asking that question Julie. Most nonprofit leaders are programmed to say donate now. go to Habitatcr.org, but I’m not going to take that opportunity right now. Although I did just plug the website. I really could be asking for those things. I could be asking for people to use this time in their house to be looking at all of their sort of material possessions saying you know I want to get rid of all of this and donate it to the restore. Of course I can say all of that stuff, but I feel that right now my best advice is to rest up, stay home, stay safe, allow this to pass and it will because we want folks to come back and we want them to come back strong. We want our volunteers to be safe now and going forward we don’t know what the build sites are going to look like for Habitat going forward. We don’t even know if we’re going to be able to mobilize groups of strangers to work together. We don’t know, nobody knows this right now. When we get the green light to leave our homes that doesn’t mean that the coronavirus disappears from the atmosphere, this is a virus that is global and it is continually on the move and so I’m sure that our new normal will look very different. I’m sure the precautions we take on site will look very different and so I ask that people use this time to have fun, write the books they’ve always wanted to write, try painting a picture out of anything you’ve got in the cupboard. That sounds weird, but we’ve used food coloring all sorts of weird stuff you know. Try a new recipe. Do something that just takes your mind away from the now and gives you a new experience that you can kind of benefit from and then come back and build with us and that’s either volunteering your time or your talent or your treasure to help us build because we have plans to build, that’s what we do.
Julie: Vicki I think your servant leadership just came out. That was the most beautiful answer that I think I’ve ever heard. I love that so much. I love that. Refresh, come back ready to build but just in case why don’t you one more time give us your website so that if people have if they would like to donate or if they just like to reach out and connect with you what’s your website?
Vicki: Thank You, Julie, its habitatcr.org, habitatcr.org.
Julie: Vicki thank you so much for this conversation today and I wish you all the best as you continue making these difficult decisions that I know all businesses and nonprofits right now are our face, so thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and your leadership with us today.
Vicki: Thanks for having me.
Julie: Okay so we have one more live interview today, coming up at 3 o’clock, so about an hour and a half from now, a lot of talk about a lot of changes actually coming out even yesterday impacting the housing market. So we’re going to talk with a local real estate expert about what some of these changes are, how it’s impacting the housing market, residential and commercial, what it means if you were looking to be listing your house or moving this spring, all of those changes plus a look at the economic impact there as well. So that will be coming up today at 3 o’clock. So we will see you back here at 3:00.