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Case Study

Investing in A data-driven approach to disrupt the cycle of homelessness

On any given night there are over 580,000 people in need of a home in the United States. Meanwhile, an estimated 3 million housing rental units sit unoccupied. This mismatch between supply and demand is driven by the fact that thousands of families and individuals are unable to access these homes due to barriers like low credit score, past debt, criminal history, or an eviction.

Housing Connector—which works in Seattle, Tacoma, and Denver—is a nonprofit business-to-business organization that launched in October 2019, with a vision that no unit should sit vacant while there are individuals in need of homes. Their model is different from the traditional service provider, as they tap into existing inventory to make them accessible to people in need rather than building new dedicated housing. 

The gist: Housing Connector provides financial support and risk mitigation against losses for property owners, reducing the uncertainty of renting to tenants with blemishes on their record. In return, those owners lower or eliminate screening criteria, increasing the accessible supply of housing. On the demand side, Housing Connector partners with social services organizations, helping them access quality units more quickly for their clients and streamlining housing matches. In addition, Housing Connector provides support for each household for two years after placement to ensure individuals not only access housing but maintain long-term stability. To bring together the supply and demand, Housing Connector has partnered with Zillow to develop functionality within Zillow.com that allows units participating in the partnership to be flagged and gives case managers the ability to search by their client’s preferences as well as their barriers, ensuring the applicant will be approved.

In their short history, the organization—together with their partners—has housed over 1,500 households and 3,600+ residents. They now have 160+ community partners and over 1,330 partner properties representing more than 73,000 units. The organization began its work with just four staff members and has added another ten since January 2021. So how has such a small team moved such mountains? 

How Housing Connector Built a Strong System Foundation

At first, Housing Connector used Excel and Google Sheets copiously to capture their data relationships. Executive Director Skëlqim Kelmendi said, “Over time, these Excel books [spreadsheets] transformed into the blueprint of our current infrastructure.” Soon, they outgrew these methods. The team turned to the customer relationship management (CRM) system Salesforce.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “To know what to leave out and what to put in, just where and just how—Ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity.” Indeed, a simple foundation is typically the result of focused choices. The elegant Salesforce architecture is the fruit of a close partnership between Housing Connector and Salesforce implementation firm Bigger Boat Consulting

Bigger Boat’s Seattle-based consultants specialize in implementing Salesforce systems for human services and affordable housing organizations. Kelmendi, who played a leading role in strategy sessions, noted, “We selected Bigger Boat because of their commitment to social impact and their desire to help us achieve our vision, as opposed to coming into the relationship with a preconceived idea of what should be done. As part of this, they were willing and excited to not only help us design and implement our Salesforce solution but also to provide us the training and support to become self-sufficient at using and enhancing the technology.” 

Together, the Housing Connector and Bigger Boat implementation teams mapped out both immediate Salesforce needs and future requirements to fulfill Housing Connector’s ultimate goal of a national organization with thousands of partners. 

Kelmendi called out some of his favorite highlights of the implementation process: keeping object relationships in the system clean and logical, a one-third focus on Salesforce training so his team could become “active participants in the solution and not merely passengers,” and putting the big, foundational rocks in place before starting on additional features.

Doug Minkler, Senior Manager of Product and Technology, who we interviewed at length, walked us through Housing Connector’s current system setup. He was brought in after the initial Salesforce implementation, in part, to help maintain and enhance the team’s system. 

Minkler serves as Housing Connector’s systems administrator and translator of business needs into technical requirements, as well as their data and analytics manager. He learned to navigate the Salesforce system after it was already built, adding to its design. From that vantage point, he was able to appreciate the value of its deceptively simple data architecture.

Minkler described how Housing Connector and Bigger Boat strategically boiled down Housing Connector’s core processes to just a few native objects in the system. This made their Salesforce foundation both easy and solid to build on top of: “It’s accounts, contacts, tenancies, cases, properties, and opportunities to track property and community partners. And really, those are the key. All features are built on the basis of those objects and their relationships. So it’s really clean to keep track of just six objects. Building analytical products, building flows, and anything, really, it’s quite simple and straightforward.”

Key Functions of the System

Housing Connector’s whole team has access to Salesforce, and it is their central repository and command station. Their system serves five key functions: 

1) Database for contacts

The team uses their system to track and contact property managers, case managers, residents, and prospective partners, using Salesforce’s Sales Cloud product. They can also see the unique relationships between these contacts and between larger organizations or “accounts,” like property partners and community partners. MailChimp is one of the customer engagement platforms they use, and its email database is updated via a Salesforce integration. This function keeps all of Housing Connector’s communications transparent and current across the organization.

2) Lead and sales opportunity pipeline management

Salesforce helps Housing Connector organize and process leads from their web and in-person campaigns, also via Sales Cloud. Leads include property partners and nonprofit community partners/case managers. The team can sort leads by stage and shepherd potential partnerships through initial outreach to negotiation of terms and finally to memorandum of understanding (MOU) signing using a DocuSign integration. As they’ve added onto their system, Housing Connector has also automated the MOU process. 

3) Program administration

Housing Connector manages core program work directly within Salesforce. Move-ins, payment requests, incidents, screening criteria, listings, and Zillow activities are just a few of the pieces the team tracks. All payment processing and invoicing happens through the system, as well as email tracking, various documentation and signatures, and other contact/account activities. The organization keeps its partners engaged with automated emails at different stages of tenancy and reports to promote transparency. A FormAssembly integration has also helped them build efficiency, opening up record and data visibility to partners, and keeping records tied together via custom pre-filled links. 

With Salesforce and its integrations, Housing Connector ensures that tenants are on track to be housed, partners are getting the communications they need, payments are happening on time or being followed up with, and more. 

4) Case management and support desk

Critical to Housing Connector’s mission is supporting properties and residents with stability support to ensure families maintain their housing. To streamline their support service line, Housing Connector utilizes Salesforce’s Service Cloud to manage incident tickets and track response and resolution metrics. 

5) Reporting, analytics, monitoring, and evaluation

Besides their strategic Salesforce foundation and the way they’ve baked the system into the core of their program work, analytics and reporting are areas where Housing Connector truly shines. Through the integration of multiple self-service analytical products, most notably Tableau, into the system, all team members can access real-time insight into the business through the Salesforce home page, ensuring that the individuals closest to the problem have the data and information. This decision to democratize information within the organization allows Housing Connector to be nimble and responsive to the changing needs of their customers.  

Building on their Success

Housing Connector’s Salesforce training and early investment in a Salesforce administrator empowered them to add more automations and integrations to their system. They collect data via automated webforms that don’t require direct entry from staff, update case status automatically based on the response, trigger emails to external parties based on certain record updates, and other functions that scale the actions the small team can make without relying on additional manual labor. 

Many of these automations are “native,” meaning they work with Salesforce’s already supported range of capabilities. Most are written using declarative programming (Flow), which in Salesforce means “clicks, not code.”  

One of the most impactful system features is their Tableau integration, which enables overviews of elements like partnerships, households, and cost metrics. Minkler has embedded Tableau dashboards directly into the Housing Connector’s Salesforce homepage, helping the team to keep program-wide elements top of mind and see bigger-picture connections. This integration also lets them:

  • Build quick formulas to rapidly analyze concepts
  • Embed reports into record page layouts so users can download relevant data directly from a record page
  • Generate custom reports to meet unique needs, like filtering available units that match a renter’s characteristics
  • Share reports with external audiences
  • See and act on real-time updates of Zillow listings and engagement based on reports opened by Zillow

How They Made It Happen

Bigger Boat asked Minkler what he attributed Housing Connector’s success to. Here’s what he said:

A. We have an internal culture and leadership that values a strong, deliberate foundation before bells and whistles, evidence-based decision-making, data quality, efficiency, scale, taking action, and being ambitious.

B. We have a great partnership with Bigger Boat that includes dedication to understanding client work, a strong program roadmap, emphasis on training users, and ongoing check-ins.

C. We have strategic partnerships with Zillow and Tableau that provide opportunities to not only consume data but be thoughtful about its use, including where it is stored and how it relates to other information we collect.

D. We have team members with some background in data and have invested in staff (like a dedicated Salesforce admin) early to build data products and introduce new features.

E. We hold regular internal meetings to collect Salesforce feedback and requests.

F. We’ve been thoughtful in adding new features.

Housing Connector’s Lessons for Other Nonprofits

How can your organization replicate Housing Connector’s system success? In more general terms, Minkler recommends the following:

  1. Understand your organization’s current processes, infrastructure, and friction points. Take stock of what is vital to have and what facilitates effective business processes.
  2. Think through object and entity relationships. How do your data points relate to each other? Which are essential to track and what processes are built around them?
  3. Start simple. Get the fundamentals right before any accessories, and you can grow quickly with add-ons and automations. Those add-ons often make existing processes more efficient as opposed to being net new functions. 
  4. Invest in a great consulting partner. They will help you think through these questions and get your team up to speed on the system that they and your organization designed together.
  5. Invest in both a project lead for your system and a Salesforce admin. These may be the same person or they could be different. Make sure to give the admin significant dedicated time. They will be key to your long-term success.

Results and Where They’re Headed 

Housing Connector has housed and supported over 2,700 individuals while helping property owners rent out vacancies. They are considering expansion into two new markets in 2022, building a support site for partners, and streamlining their experience site. 

Their system supports their daily program work and iterations to that work provide them and their partners with organized data to drive better decisions and automates labor wherever possible. 

They make a habit of consulting with others along the way. Minkler noted, “Complex decisions have benefited from checking in partners and experts in the field. Talking with [Bigger Boat] on a periodic basis has helped us steer away from certain ideas, refined what we currently have, and taken us in directions that have opened exciting new doors for us, like various integrations/apps, mail merge, Service Cloud, and our experience site.”

He also reflected, “Without Salesforce we would be stuck back in the days of spreadsheets and endless copying and pasting. Very little about our infrastructure two years ago could have handled the quantity and complexity of data, outputs, and partner engagements that we conduct today.” 

Chauncey’s Story

Chauncey Williams is just one of the individuals that Housing Connector has helped to house. Like many clients that Housing Connector works with, Chauncey faced barriers to entry due to a low credit score that left him demoralized after two years and more than 20 housing applications. With Housing Connector’s help, he was finally placed in a home and able to move forward. See his story

Each of the potential residents (and vacancies) Housing Connector manages in Salesforce represents another life that could be changed by their work. We are excited to watch Housing Connector’s continued growth and impact.