Matthew Flanigan is planning a little detour on the way to visit family in North Carolina.
The executive director and CEO of Flower City Habitat for Humanity Inc. is paying a visit to the national organization’s branch in Charlotte, N.C.—one that has a strong reputation within the international non-profit agency. Flanigan’s visit is part of a greater strategy to grow Rochester’s branch, which has taken him to other branches to learn their own strategies for growth.
Flanigan, who has a long history with area non-profit agencies, has big goals for Habitat for Humanity. He aims to nearly double the number of houses it builds each year, taking a larger role in addressing the high level of poverty within the city of Rochester and being more responsive to the needs of its residents.
Flanigan, 53, says he learned this early in his tenure. After becoming the organization’s executive director in December 2013, there was a tragedy in the city: A house burned to the ground, killing members of the family and leaving the survivors homeless.
“I wanted us to be able to do something to help them, but I found out that it just wasn’t going to be possible at the time,” he recalls. “I saw in that moment a goal for us, to one day be at a point where we can respond quickly to those needs and help a greater number of people.”
Flanigan succeeds Arthur Woodward, who retired after serving as the organization’s CEO for 19 years. Flanigan leads an organization that reported $1.6 million in total assets for the year ending June 30, 2013, the most recent year available, aiming to greatly expand its work while deepening connections with its local partners.
The organization has 15 employees and a volunteer base that tops 7,000.
Flanigan previously served as executive of Camp Stella Maris and spent eight years with the American Cancer Society, including his final four as regional vice president the organization’s eastern division in Rochester.
But it was another project that stood out to the search committee looking to find a replacement for Woodward. In his home in Livonia, Flanigan led a committee that located a site for a new church at his parish. Flanigan also played a key role in raising the more than $2 million needed to fund the project.
“That was impressive to see that he could secure large donations,” says Lisa Critchley, chairman at Flower City Habitat for Humanity.
Critchley says Flanigan was a clear frontrunner, noting his leadership role in the planning and construction of Hope Lodge Hospitality House, a project of the American Cancer Society that provides free or low-cost lodging for cancer, trauma and organ transplant patients and their caregivers.
Flanigan came to Habitat for Humanity with other construction experience as well. He oversaw a major expansion at Camp Stella Maris and has worked to continually improve his own turn-of-the-century home in Livonia.
“He had a deep understanding of construction and strong interpersonal skills, and a successful track record with other non-profits,” Critchley says.
Flanigan says he was equally intrigued by the opening at Habitat for Humanity. He already had learned the importance of stable housing through his work in fundraising efforts for another local non-profit group, Journeys to Solutions. The group helps individuals organize and facilitate trips to developing countries to help with mission projects.
Much of the work dealt with developing safe and reliable housing, which Flanigan says showed him the deep need for housing in the world.
In Habitat for Humanity, Flanigan saw an opportunity to address that problem in his own backyard.
“I love serving a good mission, and this job resonated on a lot of levels for me,” he says.
When he officially became CEO and executive director for Flower City Habitat for Humanity, Flanigan went to work immediately.
He immersed himself in the organization, spending his first weekend attending a home dedication where the keys of a new home were turned over to the homeowners.
He also instituted a top-to-bottom assessment of the organization, learning its strengths and weaknesses. He led audits of the agency’s fiscal health and its construction functions, as well as a separate analysis of its ReStore, which sells new and used furniture and home accessories.
Next up is an analysis of the organization’s fundraising functions. Because there is no specific agency to turn to for analysis of fundraising functions, Flanigan says he is putting together a panel of local non-profit leaders to appraise his organization’s functions.
The unique nature of the agency called for a careful approach when planning its future, he says.
“At most non-profit agencies, you might work with someone for five or maybe 10 years,” he says. “But because we’re building houses and working with mortgages for the people living there, it’s really a 30-year relationship. I won’t be here for all 30 years of it, but we need to serve people all along that continuum.”
The analysis led to a realignment of staff positions to meet these priorities, and Flanigan is setting some big goals.
“Right now we build roughly 10 homes a year, and I’d like to get to 20 and eventually the end goal is to be building 25 a year,” he says.
In expanding, Flanigan also is looking to sharpen the organization’s program working with homeowners. The work is broken down into four pillars:
- teaching financial literacy, including home budgeting;
- work on the construction project itself, including the early stages of laying the foundation;
- a more detailed look at the later construction, teaching things such as electric wiring and plumbing; and
- a final requirement that they give back to their new communities.
“We want people in our homeowner program to speak at our events and let others know what getting a house has meant for them,” he says. “We also want our home buyers to work in an organization of their choice within the community where they’ll be moving.”
Looking for help
To come up with a more detailed strategy of how to reach this point, Flanigan has been benchmarking against some of the best-performing Habitat for Humanity branches nationwide.
There is no central national office dictating how local Habitat for Humanity branches operate, and individual agencies are given great latitude to fulfill their missions. Still, Flanigan says, the organizations are a tight-knit group and were enthusiastic about helping.
“All I had to do was pick up the phone and call the national office to ask what branches might be able to help, and they had some on the phone for me right away,” he notes. “When I called the Charlotte branch to see if I could come in to visit, they were happy to help.”
Flanigan already has visited the branch in Albany and reached out to one in St. Catharines, Ontario, to learn about its high-performing ReStore branch.
“I’m not opposed to getting in the car or on the phone and taking a look at the branches that are doing this well,” he says.
Other Habitat for Humanity groups already have given Flanigan several ideas. In Charlotte, the site supervisor uses an iPad to order supplies for the project, and this information is fed in real time back to the organization’s main office. This allows better tracking of the process and a stronger connection between management and construction teams, he explains.
Flanigan is confident the organization can accomplish its goal to more than double the number of houses built annually. Though poverty is deep within the city of Rochester, the area is also one of the most generous in the nation, he notes.
Flanigan also believes Habitat for Humanity’s mission is one that resonates deeply with those involved. It is a key strength when looking to expand the organization’s mission.
“When you see what a home does for a family, it’s so powerful that you can’t help but want to go out and reload and do it again,” he says.
Flower City Habitat for Humanity has several advantages in its work to build up families and neighborhood, Flanigan notes. Woodward built a strong organization with a dedicated base of volunteers, but expansion may call for some wide support structures.
“As we move toward building 20 houses a year and then more, we may need to be subbing out some aspects of what we do,” he says. “Volunteers can’t dig basements, for example. We’ll need to find a way to augment what we do.”
Home building is not the only area where Flower City Habitat for Humanity will grow, Flanigan says. An in-depth analysis of ReStore found there is room to expand its current location on Culver Road and open a new location.
Flower City Habitat for Humanity does not work in a void, Flanigan says. In addressing poverty in the city, the agency partners with many local government and non-profit groups, forming relationships he says are critical to fulfilling its mission. One of the most important relationships is with the city of Rochester.
“City Hall is great, and if we have a question or a concern about a site they’re just a phone call away with a resolution or an answer,” he says.
Flower City Habitat for Humanity also works closely with other non-profit groups, including ones giving financial literacy help to homeowners. Some of the deepest connections come from the JOSANA neighborhood in Rochester’s west side, where Flower City Habitat for Humanity has pledged to build 100 houses.
Though the work started under Woodward, it has continued under Flanigan and in conjunction with local partners.
“Matt has seemed to sharpen the focus of what they will do,” says Scott Benjamin, president of Charles Settlement House, a non-profit that offers an array of services to neighborhood residents. “We’re working together with neighborhood groups and the city on a master plan. Habitat for Humanity is an extremely important part of that.”
Flanigan says the turnaround in the JOSANA neighborhood, which once had some of the highest vacancy rates in the city, as well as the deepest pockets of poverty, shows the power of Flower City Habitat for Humanity’s mission.
“Working together with other groups, we see a real momentum and a real change happening there,” he says. “It’s incredible to see.”
Position: CEO and executive director, Flower City Habitat for Humanity Inc.
Education: B.S. in psychology, Elmhurst College, Illinois, 1990; master in public administration, SUNY College at Brockport, 2001
Family: Wife Charmagne, daughters Aubrey and Teagan
Residence: Livonia, Livingston County
Activities: Hiking, biking, snowshoeing, spending time with family
Quote: “When you see what a home does for a family, it’s so powerful that you can’t help but want to go out and reload and do it again.”
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