From strategic planning to strategic thinking -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

From strategic planning to strategic thinking

By Rosa Cheng Lo

Habitat for Humanity International’s strategic plan for 2007–2011 is full of new opportunities and challenges to develop our work in areas that have not been fully explored in the past. Through the process of defining its strategic direction, Habitat for Humanity, as a global organization, has faced the challenge of selecting, among a broad range of existing possibilities, those strategies that are in keeping with the organization’s five-year vision: “Mobilizing people, and financial and social capital, HFHI will demonstrate the love and teachings of Jesus Christ by serving as a partner and catalyst for worldwide access to decent, safe, affordable housing.”

HFH’s success has positioned it among the world’s most recognized nongovernmental organizations in the mobilization of people and resources on behalf of shelter for low-income households. Since the organization’s inception, the contextual dynamics and the demands of the social players have changed, so as we begin this next phase of organizational growth it is important to reconsider the role that HFH will want to play on the new political, economic, social and cultural scene.

For HFH Latin America and the Caribbean, the new strategic plan represents an invaluable opportunity to position ourselves in this new scene—something that will require a more efficient, effective and sustainable response from the organization when faced with the serious problem of housing that affects some 220 million Latin Americans who live in poverty.

With this in mind, in October 2005 the Latin America/Caribbean area office began an intense process of reconsidering its role and its strategies for making the new strategic plan viable. This process called for a reevaluation of the problem of housing in the region, in addition to rethinking the role the area office must assume to effectively carry out the strategic plan.

It would be impossible to adopt this new international strategic plan without taking into account the peculiarities of the problem of housing in Latin America and the Caribbean that are directly linked to the phenomenon of poverty.

Our continent is characterized by the greatest inequity in the distribution of wealth in the world. For example, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population receives 48 percent of income while the poorest 10 percent of the population only receives 1.6 percent. This gap in income levels also translates into unequal access to goods and services such as housing, property, clean water, sanitation and education, among other things.

In addition, slow economic growth in the region in recent years, high unemployment rates and a growing concentration of population in cities (nearly eight out of every 10 Latin Americans live in an urban area) have led to a deepening of poverty in cities, which are unable to provide services to meet the needs of this population.

More than 50 million people live on less than US$1 a day, 60 million do not have access to clean water, 137 million do not have access to sanitation services and one out of every three city dwellers lives in a slum. This situation, along with a tendency toward a reduction in investment from local governments, and land ownership policies and housing credit systems that do not favor the poor, present us with many challenges.

Apart from analyzing this reality, HFH Latin America/Caribbean has become aware of the urgent need to refocus its work on those areas where it is possible to provide integral housing solutions to the greatest number of people while at the same time transforming the systems that prevent or hinder access to decent, affordable housing.

From among the initiatives proposed by the international strategic plan, we have decided to focus our actions on three program areas:

  • Provide housing solutions through alliances with HFH’s national offices as well as other social players capable of making our investment more efficient, effective and sustainable, such as governments, the private sector and other civic organizations. We believe that it is fundamental to refocus our efforts on reaching the poorest, particularly those who live in urban areas, as well as increasing our capacity by taking advantage of state subsidies, alliances with existing land development initiatives, construction, housing finance and infrastructure improvement, among others. The slogan will be “achieving more with fewer resources,” which implies exploring new technologies, developing new methodologies, and innovation in the way we partner with families and with those who want to join the cause.
  • Diversify and develop the credit portfolio to make the Fund for Humanity sustainable and to finance even more housing solutions in each country.
  • Influence public policies that prevent or hinder access to decent housing for the poorest sectors of society. This includes strengthening our current programs so that, in addition to attending to the target population’s concrete need for housing, we are also contributing to the transformation of housing systems whether through the way they are formulated, implemented or monitored, or by evaluating those systems.

These strategic initiatives were defined based on the successes and strengths of HFH’s national programs in the region and, therefore, do not constitute ideas that are radically different from those that HFH Latin America/Caribbean already has been developing and supporting over the past few years.

For example, HFH Brazil is working in partnership with Caixa Econômica Federal—the principal agency of the federal government dealing with social policy—to supplement the state housing subsidy with a guaranteed fund so families can access housing solutions that meet their needs. (See story on page X for more information.)

Central America has seen many advances in managing the Fund for Humanity, including the application of certain criteria from the credit sector to ensure transparency and efficiency in the administration of resources, as well as programmatic and financial sustainability. HFH Costa Rica, to name just one example, has signed an agreement with the cooperative Crédito Coopealianza for the purpose of improving credit management and facilitating identification of the target population needing home improvement services.

HFH Chile has established a foundation that will allow people to access, in a more professional and effective manner, funding allocated by the government for housing. Thanks to this strategy, housing prices have been lowered by combining resources from HFH Chile with the state subsidy.

Finally, various countries have instituted changes in the organizational structure of their affiliates and national organizations to draw upon the strengths of their volunteers to be more effective in resource development, advocacy and social audit.

To carry out these strategies, our area office and national organizations will have to redefine and align some of the existing work systems to allow us to carry out our roles with greater flexibility and pertinence toward the needs of the population we serve and the partners with whom we work. With this in mind, we have defined some areas of improvement that need to be developed at the managerial level:

  • Refine the system for making decisions so that there are clear, transparent and pertinent criteria, methodologies and procedures for deciding where and when to make investments that will have a significant and sustainable impact. This system should help us prioritize actions that would contribute to reducing the problem of housing.
  • Access new donor segments to find new allies who are capable and ready to contribute their ideas and resources to our cause.
  • Develop the leadership skills and abilities of all members of the Habitat family in order to serve the ministry in a more effective and pertinent way.

Those of us at the area office recognize that this new strategic plan implies new priorities and refocusing on the work. But the principal challenge is in changing the way we approach our work. It not only requires complying with a strategic plan, but also strategic thinking. Every action that we take, every investment that we make or every partnership that we sign must be preceded by an analysis of the context and the strengths and weaknesses of the organization in a way that will allow us to foresee the effect that these decisions will have on our ability to impact the problem of substandard housing in the region.

Although we have just begun, it is important to remember some of the principles and lessons learned that will help us move forward:

  • We must keep HFH’s mission and values in mind. It is important to acknowledge what we have done so far and to utilize these strengths as a basis for adding value to the new initiatives.
  • The strategic plan covers such a broad spectrum that there are many possibilities for taking action. It is important to make decisions that promote specialization, keeping in mind the strengths of each national program and conditions within the country. For example, it will be necessary to respond to questions such as: Are there other partners that can do certain tasks more effectively and efficiently than HFH? How can we maximize the impact of these partners? What role can and should HFH play in the local context? How can we maximize our resources to reach a larger number of people without losing sight of our mission to transform lives?
  • Any institutional change is a process that requires commitment to a vision, willingness to leave behind practices that are no longer relevant and the formation of new habits that make sense within the context of the strategic plan.
  • We must continue to build upon the strong base that we have developed over the years: the mission and values of HFH. Our practices can change, but the mission and values must remain constant.

We are aware that changing the way we think and operate will be a difficult process, so we must be sure that the action steps we define through this process of strategic thinking will positively impact the lives of the greatest number of low-income families in Latin America as possible.

At HFH Latin America/Caribbean, we have faith that with God’s help and the commitment of everyone who is part of this ministry, we will be able to provide decent housing for even more families—allowing these families to grow and develop to the fullest extent possible.

Rosa Cheng Lo is the planning, monitoring and evaluation manager for HFH Latin America and the Caribbean.