Ep 37: Mission Over Self

Sep 19, 2019 | The Nonprofit Experience - A Podcast

Recent trends have lead to huge changes in populations and as property values go up in different neighborhoods, many nonprofits feel pressure to sell their now-valuable land and move elsewhere. How does a community-based organization balance legacy with a changing sense of place? Don Blanchon, Executive Director of Whitman-Walker Health, talks with Andy Altman, co-founder of Fivesquares Development. The two talk about the partnership between the health center serving the LGBTQ community in Washington, D.C. and the real estate developer, which created a symbiotic and multi-use space in their historic 14th St site.

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Season 3, Episode 5

The Relationship:

Don Blanchon is the CEO of Whitman-Walker Health, a nonprofit community health center in Washington, DC serving the LGBT community. Whitman-Walker was founded as a safe space and community center for the LGBT community and has been on the forefront in providing HIV/AIDS treatment and care. Don joined Whitman-Walker in 2006.

Andy Altman is the co-founder of Fivesquares Development, a real estate development firm in Washington, DC. Andy and Don (best friends from 8th grade) began a partnership between Whitman-Walker and Fivesquares to create Liz: a multi-use space in the historic site of Whitman-Walker’s Elizabeth Taylor Clinic.

The Conversation:

Recent trends have lead to huge changes in populations and as property values go up in different neighborhoods, many nonprofits feel pressure to sell their now-valuable land and move elsewhere. How does a community-based organization balance legacy with a changing sense of place?

Whitman-Walker Health has found itself in possession of valuable property on the 14th St NW corridor in Washington, DC. Many nonprofits in that kind of position are under heavy pressure to sell, take that money, and move their operations. And for nonprofits, it is both tempting and traditional to follow this path when real estate developers come to them with very good offers. But Whitman-Walker’s Don Blanchon wanted something more sustainable and something that preserved the organizations ties to that place and community, which is why the health center teamed up with Andy Altman of Fivesquares Development.

Don and Andy talk about the unique partnership between Whitman-Walker and Fivesquares Development, which has created Liz: a multi-use space home to retail, a cultural center, offices, and apartments at the historic site of the Elizabeth Taylor clinic. In this conversation, the two talk about the stewardship and preservation of legacy and what it means to really think long term. They also discuss the dedication, patience, and mutual understanding necessary for a symbiotic partnership between a nonprofit health center and a for-profit real estate developer to work.

Quotes on the outside facade of Liz

Topic Timestamps

Affirmation, dignity, and respect

  • 00:00 – Recent trends have lead to huge changes in populations and as property values go up in different neighborhoods, many nonprofits feel pressure to sell their now-valuable land and move elsewhere. How does a community-based organization balance legacy with a changing sense of place? Sandy introduces Don and Andy. 
  • 01:11 – Don describes Liz, a mixed-use redevelopment project at the site of the Elizabeth Taylor Clinic. The space now houses retail, a cultural center, two floors of offices, and four floors of apartments. Although Whitman-Walker used to be known as the core place for HIV services, way before AIDS epidemic it was a safe space for gay men and lesbians in DC and gathering space. Established in the 1970s, Whitman-Walker’s mission was to affirm health care for gay men and lesbians where everyone was served, not just those living with HIV. When Don joined in 2006, he was tasked with creating that space again and turning a health center into something for the entire community with a neighborhood-centered model embodying the mission of affirmation, dignity and respect.
  • 4:07 – Don talks about Whitman-Walker’s legacy and the 12 gay men who left their homes to Whitman-Walker in bequest as a way of paying it forward to support those living with HIV and work to find a treatment.

How do we think long term?

  • Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was a Civil War-era physician DC and a women’s rights activist

    5:10 – Don asks Andy to talk about the partnership and the main question of “how do we sustain our services over time?” Whitman-Walker’s sustainability questions centered on needing more space after the ACA was upheld, having a lot of patient growth, how can they stay in the neighborhood and still serve people who live and work here. Don talks about working to preserve Whitman-Walker’s legacy and connection to the area and the learning curve for board of directors for how to address how to develop it. 

  • 7:22 – Andy talks about Fivesquares and Whitman-Walker’s central question in their search: Who is our partner going to be? He talks about how meaningful it was that the nonprofit board took the time to be deliberate, careful, and thorough in their search. Many nonprofits that are in areas that have experienced gentrification or have a lot of growth, find themselves sitting on valuable land are under enormous pressure to sell that land, take the money, and move their efforts elsewhere. Whitman-Walker took a step back and resisted that way as an easy way.
  • 10:05 – What Andy learned was the importance of the mission and the long view of the organization. He asks, “How do we think long term?” Not just 3-5 years but 10, 15 years and beyond.

The importance of listening

  • 11:23 – Andy talks about what he has learned from this process and the incredible importance of listening. He discusses how crucial it is to understand your partner’s values and their non-quantitative metrics. It is important to not just take your model and impose it on them, but to understand what they’re saying, be creative, and come up with a new model to achieve their goal.
  • 13:24 – Andy asks Don how he had the courage and vision to come to the table with that kind of drive. Don talks about how you know you’re a steward of something that’s really important at the end of the day and that means getting back to the core question about making this sustainable.
  • Don talks about the dozen gay men who left their homes to Whitman-Walker to help the organization keep it going in perpetuity until there is a more just and equal society, until there is a cure for HIV. That means that the long view is really significant. We’re 30 years into fighting an HIV epidemic, maybe another 10-20 years before there’s a functional cure or vaccine. An immediate payment isn’t good enough for long term plans like that.
  • 16:35 – Looking back, there are 3 things that Don was trying to get at when they were discussing what to do with the asset of the property:
    • 1. The sustainability and economic question
    • 2. The mission question: What are our mission needs? Do we have space needs? Do we need to modernize other facilities that we have?
    • 3. The partnership questions: we are health care people, not developers or financiers. What does that partnership model look like in going back to our core values of dignity, affirmation, and respect. Don reflects that the development of this partnership was most unique and it really relied on a sustained conversation: the ability to listen to one another and keep coming back to it and asking questions. 

Where is our place in community?

Walt Whitman was a gay poet and former DC resident

  • 19:03 – Don talks about how great it was that Fivesquares was respectful in understand who Whitman-Walker was, who they are now, and who they might be in the future. That understanding and appreciation of the importance of community is built into the project.
  • 19:42 – Andy talks about how they built community into the project, saying that one of the greatest joys of the project was signing up for is a journey that you may not know the end to. What’s interesting and important about this process is you’re engaging someone on a journey who really needs to be open to that process.
  • 21:20 Andy talks about how fast-developing areas and gentrification can create a psychological loss of identity and community. The 14th St. corridor is really important for the LGBTQ community and the Elizabeth Taylor building and Whitman-Walker didn’t want to lose the identity of the organization. Don came to Andy asking how do we establish and not lose that sense of rootedness. Andy say that the partnership is not just about trying to tick a box, it’s about saying infusing the mission into all aspects of the project and discussing it together.
    • 23:20 So what does it look like? They talked about preserving that sense of community through creating a cultural center and making sure that Whitman-Walker’s presence was a front door, not a backdoor for the LGBTQ community. And Fivesquares’s role is to ask how do we help translate that?
  • 25:28 – Andy says that what’s most important for the nonprofit is having a very clear vision and being always guided by that vision.

Wrap up

  • 25:47 – Don and Andy wrap up the conversation.
  • 26:07 – Outro: Eat vegetarian meals a few times a week, visit the oldest building in your city, and tell your friends about our show.

Andy (left) talks with Don at Liz

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