As President and CEO, Caroline is responsible for guiding the strategic direction of Rebuilding Together. She joins the organization from Cassin & Cassin LLP, where she was a partner in the Real Estate Finance Group. Prior to joining the firm, she served as vice president in Fannie Mae’s multifamily business, where she defined its strategic direction for growing asset management and counter party responsibilities. Early in her career, she practiced real estate, banking, and corporate law at firms in the Washington, D.C., area, including a woman-owned firm she co-founded to specialize in matters related to the Resolution Trust Corporation.
John Shegerian: Listen to the Impact podcast on all your favorite podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Audible, Spotify, Stitcher, and of course, at impactpodcast.com. This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital, from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find closed-loop partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.
John: This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.
John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so honored to have you with us today, Caroline Blakely. She is the president and CEO of Rebuilding Together. Welcome to the show, Caroline.
Caroline Blakely: Oh, thank you. And thank you so much, John, for having me. I really appreciate it.
John: Really an honor to have you today. And Caroline, before we get talking about all the important work you and your colleagues are doing at Rebuilding Together, can you share a little bit of your backstory where you grew up, and where your career and journey has taken you?
Caroline: Thank you. I’d be happy to. I’m actually my office and I’m sitting right now in Washington DC which is where I grew up. So I didn’t go very far from where I grew up. Not many people say they’re from Washington. It’s a very transitory town. But I am from here and I still hang out with my high school friends. It’s amazing. It’s my hometown to me. So that’s great. After growing up here, I went to college and went to law school and law for a little while, never really liked it, and decided to become… I was in real estate law and I decided to become a banker instead. I went to the other side and started actually doing a lot of commercial real estate debt. And did that for most of my professional career. My last job was at Fannie Mae here in Washington. So I never really went very far. I never ventured out of the Washington area for work. And when I decided enough of corporate life, I was offered an opportunity to become President and CEO of this incredible nonprofit called Rebuilding Together. Which I had heard of before I got here because I actually volunteered during my time with Fannie Mae. Fannie Mae was a big supporter of rebuilding together, and I spent a lot of time as a volunteer, so I was thrilled to actually think about coming and, and improving it and running it and seeing what we could do.
John: What year was that?
Caroline: That was nine years ago.
Caroline: So, pre covid.
John: Rate pre covid. Yeah.
Caroline: Really. So I got to rebuilding together after I sort of retired from the whole commercial investment banking, lending life.
Caroline: And decided to come over to the nonprofit side, which was a big switch. I had always served on nonprofit boards, but never worked in the nonprofit industry. And so, coming over from real corporate America into what is the philanthropy world has been quite the change. Very, very interesting. Very glad, and very blessed to have this opportunity in my career to sort of seal my career with being in philanthropy. I very much enjoyed it.
John: So let’s talk about that. First of all, for our listeners and viewers who wanna find Caroline and her colleagues and all the important and great work they’re doing at Rebuilding Together, please go to www.rebuildingtogether.org, rebuildingtogether.org. So you’ve been there now for about nine years. Talk a little bit about Rebuilding Together. First its mission overall and then you come in and what was your mandate when you came in?
Caroline: Sure. Rebuilding Together repairs low-income homeowners’ homes. So that’s the tagline.
Caroline: But behind that is just an incredible story of 40 years ago, this movement started where volunteers or neighbors would help neighbors, neighbors in need, neighbors who couldn’t keep up their own homes and actually go and volunteer and help and repair. Allow the people who own the homes to stay in the communities and stay in their homes. And it grew and grew and grew. And we have affiliates now across the country that are all their own 501C3s that all have the same mission, and that is focusing on existing housing infrastructure for people that are in need of help. And for free, we go in and we consult with them. We sit down in the living room usually with them and members of their families. Decide how we can help them live in their house, and then we come in with volunteers and do the repairs. So it’s an incredible concept. Very simple, but incredibly overlooked. So if you talk about the affordable housing crisis in the United States today, of course, there is such a crisis. Most people talk about rental properties and tax credit properties, which are rental properties,
Caroline: They talk about homelessness. But rarely do you hear people talk about a homeowner that has a home, or has an asset, but it’s falling into disrepair because they don’t have the means or they’re not capable of doing the repair. So it’s a very overlooked segment. A very unique segment of the affordable housing crisis, and I’m so glad to be in it because what you meet and get with being on the ground is people who live in communities that have been there really for generations. Certainly, I’ve met many, many people in the past nine years that have been in their homes all their lives, and they want to stay there, and they’re vital members of a community and its existing infrastructure. So we’re not building new homes. We’re actually repairing what’s there and keeping the communities together. And it’s so important to the lives of these people, to the mental health of these people, that they can actually stay where they want to be. They don’t want to move, they don’t want to go to a rental, and they don’t want to go to an assisted living. They want to stay in their home and age in place safely. And that’s what we…
John: The organization itself formed about 40 years ago?
Caroline: Yeah. It started with a movement called Christmas in April. And Christmas in April was, oh my God, it’s Christmas and it was in April that the repairs were performed.
Caroline: So it started as Christmas in April, but we have nothing to do with Christmas and we have nothing to do with April other than April is the month of the year that many of my affiliates do most of the repairs. It tends to be a weather-friendly month across the United States. So we generally have a lot of repair work going on in April, but since we didn’t have Christmas in April wasn’t as meaningful as it was when it first started. About 15 years ago, the name changed to Rebuilding Together and it’s rebuilding or repairing homes, and together with volunteers and neighbors helping neighbors.
John: So we have lots of listeners who dream about their next life, their next business life. So now you went from a very successful and obviously a high education background in terms of having your GED and being in commercial real estate on the debt side, now to the nonprofit side. How personally did that transition go for you? How much of a culture shock the whole… was it for you, and how long did that adjustment take for you?
Caroline: I’m still adjusting. It was a huge culture shock. As I said, I was on the boards of nonprofits for a lot of different causes.
Caroline: But being on the board and then actually trying to run one of these things, nonprofits are so messy and they’ve got so many different stakeholders and so many different ways to get pulled that it’s incredibly confusing. And there tends to be always a lack of resources, thinly staffed, not a big bench, lots of need, and a lot of passion. So you mix all that together and it becomes very messy because you just… people are driven to rebuild them together as they’re driven to many causes because of the passion that they feel, and they want to help. And sometimes that can get in the way of getting the business done. So I’m still adjusting, but it was a difficult first, and second year to come off of corporate America and into the philanthropy world I was learning, learning, learning, which was so great for me at that point in my life that I felt like I can really have another career and learn something totally different than I’ve ever experienced before, which was great. And just learning how to ask for money, how to spend the money according to what your donors want and to serve the mission has been quite a learning experience and a wonderful one.
John: So you went from the corporate world as we all call it and the sort of clean and simplistic cadence of a deal begins, has a middle, has a lifespan, has an end. You close the file and you move to the next year.
Caroline: It was transactional. It was transactional. And this is anything but transactional. This is all about building trust building relationships building long-term solutions. Sometimes it feels like there’s such an ocean out there of need that what we’re doing is just a drop in that ocean. So it doesn’t have that satisfaction of closing the deal, getting the deal done next. You’re constantly trying to improve things and constantly trying to think of ways to make a difference and sometimes this need for what we do is so great that it can sometimes get you because you can’t change the world, can’t boil the ocean.
John: Can’t boil the ocean but if we didn’t have the Caroline Blakely’s of the world putting one step in front of the other every day, where would we really be then?
Caroline: Exactly. And I think that the glory of philanthropy is you can have effective change with focus. And that’s certainly the lesson that I’ve learned here at Rebuilding Together over the last nine years, I think the biggest changes I’ve seen is we have really focused on and tried to stay true to what we were supposed to be doing because donors love to give you money, hopefully. But when they give you money, they tend to love to tell you how to spend it. And we try to make sure we stay very focused on the mission at hand so that we can really have an impact.
John: So one of your, and we’re going to get into this in a second. But one of the real pillars that you brought to this organization is you took the clarity of the world that you knew how to run, and you brought a sense of clarity to like you said, this wonderful ball of messiness, and that clarity then helps you continue to succeed every building together with the donor base, which is of course a lifeblood of any nonprofit.
Caroline: Right. Absolutely. Thank you for observing that. And that’s actually my first two years I think I felt like a broken record. Just constantly reinforcing what the mission, the vision, what the guiding light is, what the North Star is that we’re all about. And trying to say as true to that as we could because you can get very distracted in this world.
John: Sure. So, but you came in now this organization by then was about 31 years old.
John: So there was a lot of history.
John: So how did you sort of create that blank page when you were asked to join as the president and CEO and then recreate what you sensed and what you observed needed to be fixed and also then took on some new initiatives that came from your skillset and your history of success in the corporate world.
Caroline: Well, the first thing I did was this organization was founded by a very inspiring woman who since has passed away. But Patty Johnson started this organization here in Washington, and I first went to lunch with her and I said, all right, Patty, you did it. You retired. What would you have done differently? What worked, what didn’t work? So I really interviewed the founder to find out how she did it. And subsequent to Patty, there were a few other CEOs that I spent some time with and got their perspective and talked to every past chair of the board that I could find, and asked a lot of questions about what worked and what didn’t work, and learned, spent a lot of time learning. And then I was lucky enough to have an incredible staff that had a history here and knew about how the movement started. And as I said, we are the National Office, but we have affiliates across the country. They are their own 501C3s, and they’re affiliated with me through an agreement where I provide a lot of services, but they’re really the boots on the ground. So I actually visited as many of them as I could physically get to that first year and flew around the country and saw where they were working and saw the neighborhoods, talked to the homeowners, talked to the people who were really affecting them, and really l listened to what is the distinguishing factor that rebuilding together can do to improve the lives of those most in need and heard it from the ground.
John: How many affiliates do you have approximately?
Caroline: We have about 120 right now.
Caroline: When I first started it was closer to 200. But a lot of the… but we serve more geographies with the 120 than we did with the 200.
Caroline: So the old 80-20 rule?
Caroline: Yeah. It was the bigger affiliates that got bigger and served more, and the affiliates that maybe were all volunteers that didn’t have a paid staff, it was too much work because…
Caroline: Over these nine years, the bar has grown to become an affiliate of Rebuilding Together. They’re things you have to do. So you have to abide sort of by what we hope is our brand is providing safe and healthy repairs to homes. So there’s a lot of work behind that that a lot of affiliates who were all volunteers were found to be a little too much. But we’ve grown the geography of where we serve with lesser affiliates.
John: Well, that sounds like to me, just the essence of efficiency.
Caroline: We got efficient, we got very efficient, and we said, the ones that we wanted to bet on, we bet big and we went big with them. And in the jurisdictions that we were most successful, we learned from them and learned what the secret sauce was and tried to replicate that.
John: But when you look back now, nine years ago when you went on your initial, what I want love to call listening tour right to the past chairman and the founder, how much did that listening tour inform you to do the great work you’ve been doing in the…
Caroline: Oh, incredibly so. With the staff that I had and the people that were willing to talk to me and share with me and really give me honest feedback about what was working and not working here at Rebuilding Together. And also give me an education and philanthropy. I mean, I thought I knew about nonprofits, but I did not know about nonprofits, so I didn’t know about the whole lingo about nonprofits that they all use and I didn’t know about logic models and theories of change and impact studies. I didn’t know any of that. So I had a lot to learn and it was fascinating how much there is behind the scenes where people don’t… I think, those who are not in the world, don’t realize the complexity of actually getting money and then making sure you spend it responsibly. There’s a lot of complexity to that.
John: That’s interesting. For our listeners and viewers, we’ve got Caroline Blakely with us. She’s the president and CEO of Rebuilding Together. To find Caroline and her colleagues and all the important work they’re doing at Rebuilding Together, please go to www.rebuildingtogether.org. So. Let’s talk about the impact and social return on investment. You know the name of our show is Impact. We have great people like you, Caroline, with great organizations that you represent because you are making a true impact. What do impact measurement and social return mean to you and to your organization for our listeners? Because it can mean a lot to a lot of people, and for different organizations, it means different things. I’d love to hear your perspective on what it means to you and rebuilding together.
Caroline: I think my greatest learning has been to define that over, and my greatest contribution, I think to Rebuilding Together has been to define what real true impact means with the work that we do. When I got here nine years ago, we had lots of data and we had lots of data about how many houses have we repaired, how many families have we touched, and how many volunteers have we incorporated into our movement. But I would say we really didn’t have the tools that we needed to say, so what? What was the impact? We can count and we counted great. We had lots of data counting, but what did it really need? So we started in two… oh, probably five years ago. A pilot program where we actually hired an outside validator to work with us to define what is the impact of the work. So we surveyed on a pilot basis a lot… some of the homeowners that we work with and asked them a lot of questions about their lives. What did the new roof mean? What did the fact that you can actually have a wheelchair ramp go up to your house? How did that change your life? And we found that we had a real impact on individual lives that we could measure. And we took that a step further and said, well, what’s the social return on investment? What does that mean? How have we changed the lives of those people and how can we measure that return on the investment? So we worked with a bunch of economists and measured and put dollars against the cost of the repairs that were made to the home. And the benefit that was received by society. So less falls, less hospital visits, and greater interaction with the community. What did that actually mean in terms of the reduction of societal cost? So we came up with a methodology that showed us for every dollar of investment we could show a social return to our donors, especially those who were so thoughtful about their ESG needs now a social return of $2.84. And so we took a real mathematical economic analysis to it and with rigor can now say that with these repairs that we do to a home, and we typically have about 25 standard repairs that we do to a home. This is what the return is. And that I think has very much told our story and helped us tell the story to donors and then help the donors themselves justify giving us money because now they can put it in a monetary format.
John: Right. I mean, but that goes back to the issue of you bringing clarity to this organization, which then further drives it by giving the donors real tangible, transparent numbers. And that’s rare. That’s rare.
Caroline: Yeah. Well, we’ve been told by a lot of donors and other nonprofits that we’re pretty far along on this journey that a lot of other nonprofits can count the way we were counting, and there’s everything good about that. You have to know how many people you’re dealing with, and how many volunteers you touch. But then to go to the next step and really interpret that and say, this is our theory of change. This is what we think we can impact people’s lives and then we can monetize that. So we have a lot of anecdotal, so we know 70% of our people feel less stressed. So we have an influence on mental health because they know that their roof is not leaking or that they can get it in and out of their house. We know that of the veteran population that we’ve served and we serve a lot of veterans that 70%, 67% of the veterans will say that they have a more positive attitude towards life now. So we know these numbers now and we can sort of say we know how it affects the actual homeowner, how it affects their family, how the return is there for the social value. And now we’re looking at what can we say about the community. How can we turn the impact on the community into a dollar figure? And that’s all about community revitalization and that’s all about partnering with other groups that are working in the community. And we can say, you bring us in and have us focus on the housing, on the homes. And we have other wraparound services doing other things. We can improve the community by X dollars. And so we’re working on that right now. The next big impact that we want to measure and monetize and talk about is the energy work that we’re doing. So anytime we touch a house, we can impact the energy efficiency of that house, and we can impact the carbon footprint of that house and of that family. And so we’re now really underway on getting to that point where we start measuring the energy effect because we know the societal value, so we can fill out the S of the ESG, and now we’re trying to fill out the E of the ESG.
John: Well, that will also then, as you said, in theory, give even more impotence for your donors to invest because they’re all looking for more ESG impact than ever before.
Caroline: Absolutely. And we may not be the lead-certified solution, but we certainly can tell you what this one family saved in energy bills. And when we touched the house and we put weather sealants on and we put a new roof in and we put the right kind of appliances in there, then it multiplies. And even though it’s one home at a time, it’s a bunch of homes.
John: Speaking of a bunch of homes, approximately how many homes do you touch a year in the United States?
Caroline: We have about 10,000 to 10… well, covid, pre-covid, it…
Caroline: Going into someone’s house during Covid and doing repairs was very difficult to do. But we do between 10,000 to 12,000 homes across all of our affiliates per year.
John: That’s a massive impact in terms of energy, in terms of everything.
Caroline: Yeah, everything, and that’s only growing as people understand that is much more efficient to focus on existing infrastructure, especially in some of our big cities than it is to build new. And if you can get existing infrastructure with helping people that want to be in communities, want to stay where they are, that that is a very efficient way to deal with a lot of the housing issues that we have.
John: That’s tremendous. Besides the energy efficiency that you’re going to be working on in the future what else is next for Rebuilding Together? What’s your vision…
Caroline: What other impact can we…
John: Yes. Yes.
Caroline: We’re releasing a study in the fall. About the impact on veterans. So I mentioned that one of our populations is the veterans, and we were specifically given some research money to actually work with occupational therapists and really understand the impact on the lives of that population, the veterans. So you’ll see in the fall a big study on how veterans are helped with mental health, physical health, getting out of their house, back into the community, how that’s impacted, specifically that population. So energy veterans are next, and community. What can we show that… we’ve shown the impact on the actual homeowner. Now we want to show the impact on the community at large.
John: When we send listeners, we’ll put your URL in the show notes as well to rebuildingtogether.org. What do you want our listeners to take away from today’s discussion in terms of actionable things, in terms of how they get involved if they like this mission and what everything you’re doing, which it’s hard to not like or love, in fact? What do you want people to come away with from today’s conversation?
Caroline; I’m hoping, I’m really hoping that people look up rebuilding together in their local area, wherever they are. And if they don’t have one, call me and I’ll find out if we can start one if it’s not there, but we’re in 50… the 50 major metropolitan areas. Find a Rebuilding Together affiliate and just go on a build. Just try it. It’s an incredibly intimate social interaction. You actually get to go behind the screen door and there are very few nonprofit entities where you can actually meet the beneficiary of where your time or your dollars are going, go into their home, which is a very intimate experience, and actually make a difference and get a hug and cry with somebody because all of a sudden they, they, they don’t have trip hazards and you have removed the rug or you’ve given them a bathroom where there wasn’t one. Simple, simple things that you as a volunteer say, I don’t know how to do that. I can’t do that repair. Well, yes you can with our affiliates and they’re outstanding house captains, you will be able to do these repairs and what you get back personally is. Just so rewarding. So I would say to people go try a build. That’s how I got hooked. And I got hooked because it was so personal and yet I could see the impact as you aggregate it across the country. What we could actually do from these, and we’re serving people that are 30% of area meeting income. So we are serving people who really need us. Really need us right now.
John: I’m sure it becomes very addictive once you’ve gone in and helped repair a homeowner’s home.
Caroline: And you can do it with your friends too.
Caroline: And we have found most of our corporate donations the experience for them is that their employees are just wowed by it. And I think I also very much enjoyed the experience that they get of the day.
Caroline: That it’s an authentic, real giving back exercise of philanthropy that helps recruit and retain [inaudible].
John: Awesome. Well, I love your mission. I love what you’re doing, Caroline. For those who want to find Caroline Blakely and her colleagues and all the work that they’re doing at Rebuilding Together, or get involved yourself, please go to www.rebuildingtogether.org. Caroline, you are making a huge impact and making the world better one home at a time. Thank you for joining us today on the Impact Podcast. You’re always welcome back here to continue your unbelievable journey and all the important and great work you’re doing. And I thank you for your time today, and I thank you for the great work that you’re doing.
Caroline: Thank you, John. I really appreciate it. And here at Rebuilding Together, we love doing, and telling our story because we know it really changes people’s lives, so thank you.
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John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.