Co-founder and Co-director: St. Bernard Project
Zack Rosenburg is the co-founder and co-director of St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit rebuilding organization. The mission is to remove barriers for families who want to come back home after Hurricane Katrina. They do this by rebuilding homes for families who cannot afford to on their own. The St. Bernard Project has rebuilt 221 homes as of the summer of 2009.
Zack exemplifies what it means to be a social entrepreneur: He found an opportunity to create a social good and developed the organization and built the capacity to achieve it. The St. Bernard Project also demonstrates how a nonprofit can operate professionally without falling into the trap of centralized compassion.
How was the St. Bernard Project founded?
Before Hurricane Katrina, I was living in Washington, DC with my girlfriend and the other co-founder of the St. Bernard Project, Liz McCartney….We came down in February 2006, like any other volunteers, just to help….
And when we got to St. Bernard, we were shocked, primarily by two things: We were shocked to see the lack of progress and [that] there was hardly anything going on. There was no rebuilding going on. The ground was covered by guck; American families, seniors, veterans were living in tents [and] FEMA trailers. Those were the lucky ones. Other residents were living in cars and attics and garages, and we saw that not anything was going on….
We spent time getting to know the residents and cooking food for them, being there for them after they had felt so incredibly abandoned. And I think, initially, we thought we’d go back home and get back to our lives. Then when we realized that these were solvable problems and no one was doing anything, we felt we could help and be part of the solution, or we could go back to doing what we were doing and, frankly, become part of the problem.
So we went back to DC and raised a bunch of money, sold the car, bought a truck, and moved down here three months later and started working on the building across the street. We drywalled it and put [in] the plumbing and the electric and everything else. That took about two and a half months. [We] started working on homes in July.
How did you get funding?
We raised about $30,000 when we were in Washington. So that bought tools and some supplies and drywall for the first couple houses….United Way agreed to fund drywall for 25 houses, and that got us rolling. So then, we had supplies, and we could accommodate volunteers. The first August, we were working on one house at a time, by Thanksgiving four houses at a time, by Christmas ten, and now we’re working on between 30 and 40 houses at any one time.
Did you know anything about the construction business when you started?
I knew absolutely nothing about the construction business before we started this. The guy who owns the building where our shop is can do anything. And he taught us, and we met some local folks who knew how to do the work, and I still don’t know a lot, but we hired people who can train construction workers. And then we trained up various AmeriCorps team members, and now we have site supervisors at every job site, folks who know exactly what they’re doing, who are well trained and safe. We have construction supervisors who manage the site supervisors, and we have our own electrical team and our plumbing team, so we do all that in-house also….[We’ve had] over 10,000 volunteers.
Where are your volunteers from?
Our volunteers come to us. Initially, we put an ad on Craigslist and on Idealist.org, and volunteers came to us, and they’ve come from every cross section of American society, all over the country. We’ve had volunteers from every state. We’ve had doctors and plumbers and garbage men and secretaries and lawyers and everybody of all political and social persuasions as well.
How do you choose your clients?
Clients fill out an application. We have a rule that we make a phone call. No one goes longer than two weeks without being called after they submit an application. Everyone gets an interview. And it’s very important that everyone gets an interview for a few reasons: One, I know that my life couldn’t be distilled into a few pieces of paper—and no one else’s should also; and two, people need to be able to hear yes or no to their face. It’s very important to make the process personal.
We go through two or three stages of interviews. Once a client is accepted, we do the electrical, the plumbing, and the mold work, and then start rebuilding the house. And from the moment that the rough electric and plumbing and mold work is done, it takes no more than 12 weeks to completely rebuild a house.
Why has your organization been so successful?
I think, primarily, our model works because our only tie is to processes that work. And if a process brings us closer to being more effective and more efficient in getting families home, we’ll keep it. And if it doesn’t, it goes out the window.
The all-under-one roof model is what the St. Bernard Project utilizes. We raise our own funds. We have our own case managers. We recruit, train, and supervise volunteers. We get the supplies to the job site. Again, we supervise the jobs. We provide other services to clients. We’re opening up a wellness and mental health center, so it creates a one-stop shop for clients needs.
It [the model] creates a one-stop shop for funders’ needs, and it ensures that the various components of the rebuilding process, getting the supplies, getting the volunteers, supervising the volunteers, and getting the clients are all under one organization that has one leader and is accountable to that organization. Our model has accountability between the various functions—case management, volunteer recruitment, funding, and construction supervision—so that if one department is struggling, we can utilize sound management strategies to get that department working at an optimal level.
And I think our operational ethos make us successful. And that is to treat our clients, or people who receive our services, the way we would want our family members to be treated. And that means focusing on progress. If you treat your clients, or people who will be impacted by your decisions, the way you want your family members to be treated, generally, you’ll have solution-oriented programs.
How do you think that compares to government response programs?
Our model is progress rather than process oriented. And I think many of the government models are process oriented. There’s an emphasis on preventing fraud and waste rather than the highest priority of getting people back home. And so many of the line staff are more concerned with hewing close to the line and preventing fraud, rather than getting families in the door and creating solutions.
The other part of the problem with the traditional disaster-recovery model, and I think the government programs, is no one wants to be out of a job. And when the disaster’s over, people will be out of a job. I don’t think people are deliberately elongating things, but some of the processes that are coming into place certainly are having that result.
What should the new administration know about the
I think what the administration should be cognizant of its responsibility to American citizens to get them back home ….You know, our residents here are tax-paying, proud American citizens who just want to move home. There are models to get families home. Our volunteer-driven model works. Our new program, the ”Good Work/Good Pay” program, is a nonprofit construction company that hires returned war veterans and under/unemployed residents work. We are able to pay livable wages, and by eliminating two levels of profit, reduce costs to clients by 30–45 percent.
What works about the nonprofit model?
When we were talking about what post-disaster rebuilding model works the best, if we’re talking about residential rebuilding, an all-under-one roof model is the way to go rather than the traditionally accepted long-term recovery committee model that uses a roundtable approach. And the problem with the roundtable approach is that it’s redundant: Not all of the organizations communicate and have the same standards, and there’s no accountability between the organizations. The all-under-one roof model literally keeps everybody all under one roof. Everybody has one boss, whoever’s running the organization; it’s non-redundant.
Does there need to be government agency coordinating the nonprofit response?
No. I think an overall coordinating entity would just make things worse. That would saddle organizations that are working with further requirements. And to me, frankly, that would be a jobs program for bureaucrats when at the end of the day what needs to happen is organizations that are moving families home need to be seeded and replicated.
What is the organization’s next step in rebuilding the community?
Rebuilding homes is just the first step for folks who have lost everything, including, certainly, property, but also identity. Remember that people in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were dubbed “refugees.” And these are veterans, former policemen, and American citizens, taxpayers, civil servants. So they lost their identities both in name by being dubbed “refugees.” and when they could no longer provide for their family members. Communities aren’t the same.
We’ve opened the Center for Wellness and Mental Health because so many of our clients are alive, but not living. The rates of suicidal ideations and acts are enormous, domestic violence has risen considerably and hasn’t gone down too much in the years that have passed. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and then the mental health issues of depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety are all through the roof.
What will the end of the rebuilding process look like?
I think we’ll have worked ourselves out of a job in St. Bernard probably in three years. Because the next step is to create affordable rental housing. You know, so much of the work right now has been focused on homeowners.
The rental housing prices in St. Bernard and New Orleans area have doubled. People who raised their families, were living in affordable rental housing, now they can’t live. The rental prices have gone from around $500 a month to almost $1,000 a month. And especially people on fixed incomes, seniors, people with disabilities can’t live [there], and it’s almost tantamount to not being able to be an American if you can’t live in the same community you were in before. So, the government is giving us some gutted houses. We’re going to rebuild the houses using volunteer labor and then make them available at low rent, at pre-storm rents.