Note: This is a guest post by Dianna Deeley who has recently joined Stacy McCain and me as a full-time member of The Other Podcast crew. Dianna operates a consulting business that provides advice to not-for profits organization.
A friend of mine linked this story on Facebook—it’s the story of what another friend describes as the “Make It Very, Very, Wrong Foundation.”
Brad Pitt’s Make it Right was established in 2008 to rebuild the 9th Ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The mission statement from Make it Right’s 2015 990-PF (the last 990 available) reads: Development of affordable green homes in economically challenged areas. Just as an aside, $130,000 seems a little steep for an affordable home.
Ground was broken on the first homes in 2008, and by 2015 Make It Right had spent over $26 million on the development. Building stopped by early 2016, as complaints about the design and construction of some of the houses began to surface.
Award-winning architects were turned loose, and a “green” builder was hired. At a minimum, $26 million has been spent, and at least two of the houses have been demolished, with complaints being lodged over the design and construction of the rest. Lawsuits are flying. Neighbors are furious, and residents would like some repairs done.
This is an utterly predictable fiasco. The intentions were great; the money was no object; the development was going to be a great and glorious topic of discussion at Hollywood cocktail parties; and all would be well. It’s drearily predictable—all sizzle, no steak.
If the endeavor had started with a little humility, and worked with agencies that build affordable homes (offhand, there’s Habitat for Humanity and Mercy Housing South), some respect for Murphy, and some serious due diligence, this might have been money well-spent. Unleashing celebrity architects to create a bunch of blue-sky designs was a terrible thing—the buildings may be architecturally stunning, but don’t serve the needs of people who are living in them. Finally, it would have been wise to hire the construction firms who build upper middle class housing in the area.
Instead, the COO hired to run the show is an authority on renewable energy and has an MBA in finance (which is reassuring when very large amounts of money are being slung about!) but no previous construction experience. In other words, they hired someone who would have been a terrific consultant for energy efficiency but is the wrong choice to be in charge of the foundation.
There was a construction manager. I cannot discover what he was managing during construction, because on completion, the roofs leaked, the foundations … weren’t foundational, the gas meters were installed improperly, and the buildings started rotting pretty much immediately. This is not good management.
Also, when a new, green, product is offered (See: TimberSIL), it might be wise, rather than leaping on it with great enthusiasm, perhaps to test it initially on one building, like, say, a community center, in which no one lives. When you know how well it works, consider using more of it. But no one ever seems to have mentioned this concept to the foundation.
There are about 385 non-government funders who give in the New Orleans area, at least 50 of which build housing as part of their mission. No, the Make It Right’s board wouldn’t have gotten as many plaudits on their wonderful, daring new buildings, but the houses would not be falling down about the owners’ ears, and there would not be any lawsuits. Or, given the way we operate these days, at least a lot fewer lawsuits! If they’d actually built houses right, the foundation’s board could still be looking for new and wonderful projects that need the kind of money and clout that a foundation like Make It Right should have.
UDATE—Some typos corrected.