Looped In: with special guest, Adam Feldman

In this episode, Lisa Munter talks with Adam Feldman from Habitat for Humanity of Northern Saratoga Warren and Washington Counties

looped in podcast


Lisa Munter: Thanks everyone for joining me for today's podcast. I had such a great conversation with my friend Adam Feldman from Habitat for Humanity, where not only did I learn some new information about his organization, but got to know him on a personal level as well. I'm excited for you to hear what we talked about. So grab your toolbox and listen in.
Hi. Welcome everyone. I'm so excited today for my podcast because I have my friend Adam Feldman, who is the Executive Director for the Habitat for Humanity in Northern Saratoga, Washington and Warren County. Welcome.

Adam Feldman: Thank you very much. Excited to be here.

Lisa Munter: So today we're going to be talking about connections and the importance of connections. And so I'd like to start by sharing with everyone my connection with you. So I had an opportunity to meet you in 2019, and I remember that somebody that I met was just like, "Oh my gosh, you have to meet Adam." So I emailed you and you're like, "Absolutely". And we had a great conversation at a local coffee shop, and you really were inspiring to me because you understood where I was going with it and my vision because you had the business side from your previous life, and now you're working on the nonprofit side. So I just want to start by saying how impactful you were to me to be as a mentor and what your advice was to me moving forward with my journey, really means a lot. So I just want to thank you for that.

Adam Feldman: Thank you very much. It's great to hear. I really appreciate that.

Lisa Munter: Yeah, so anyways, it makes me excited. So to move on to the topic of connection. So Habitat for Humanity, why is making connections and building relationships so important to what you do?

Adam Feldman: So it's not only important to what we do, it is what we do. It is everything. Everything is ingrained into the community. So Habitat is a developer that never leaves. We are in the community, building for the community, committed to the community, and also our unique model building with volunteers, we literally build with the community. And so Habitat's very unique where a lot of volunteers, they don't get to necessarily interact with the direct clients that they're serving. So maybe you go and make 5, 000 Thanksgiving meals, but you never actually have dinner with the person that you're making the meal for. And Habitat, it's very special because the family, one of the biggest burdens to homeownership is down payment. And so we have very small down payment, $2,500, but instead they put sweat equity into the house. So they come and build with the community. And so the person that's eventually going to buy the house gets to literally work with the community and that really starts, that's phase one of the Habitat relationship.

Lisa Munter: Wow, I love that. And so how does Habitat find those connections?

Adam Feldman: Yeah, well one. We're really lucky that everyone knows what Habitat for Humanity is.

Lisa Munter: That's true.

Adam Feldman: Yeah. We're one of the most powerful brands in the world. Jimmy Carter put us on the map. And so when we do... a lot of small businesses, you gave me an elevator pitch at our first coffee shop meeting, we joke around that, our elevator pitch is, "Hi Adam, I'm Adam and I work for Habitat." and that's it. We're done. That's enough to earn a meeting. And so sometimes that first meeting is really hard to get to initiate the relationships. And we're lucky that we have a great brand that opens up doors. I'm always talking to my colleagues who work at other Habitats, how to leverage the brand to open more doors, but also partner with other nonprofits, or other for- profits, or other government agencies to leverage our brand to open more doors. So here's an example. Curtis Lumber, appreciates that there's a shortage of workforce in the construction space. And so if there's not enough workers, then you're not buying lumber. And so they're having a government advocacy day and they invited me to join because we have the same problem. Because if there's not enough workers, then the cost of construction goes up. And so when a for- profit developer who may be perceived as a wealthy individual enters the room to talk to a government official, sometimes a government official blows them off and says, "You don't really need my help." But when I walk in with them and say, "Hey, there's a relationship here, there's a partnership here, it also impacts the affordable housing piece and not just the for- profit piece." Everyone then listens. And so that's a way to leverage our brand and leverage relationship in both directions to help everybody.

Lisa Munter: Wow, I love that. Talk about just the spider web of it just keeps building and growing. Would you say that then the majority of Habitat's connections, at least at this local level, are more from businesses or from individuals?

Adam Feldman: Good question. So typically from a financial perspective, it tends to be business centric. We are seeing a lot of businesses are excited about our model and they send their staff, as we call it, Build Day, a corporate build day. And so they send their... tends to be not construction staff, but desk staff or professional staff to come and build the house, and they do it through their HRs. So this is a Give Back day or a Team Building day. And one of the beautiful things about a Habitat house is in general, if you make $15 an hour or 15 million dollars a year, you have the same skillset. And sometimes it's usually inadvertently proportionate. So it's a very flat environment. We don't care if you wear a suit or you're wearing jeans. Yeah, I'm handing you a paintbrush. And we're all at the same cause and we all work together and from the corporate side, a lot of our stuff is at. But then we have what we call our Regular Volunteers, and they are construction skilled and they're all individuals, and they tend to be retired men, though there's plenty of females as well. And they usually come two days a week or so and they help build. So everything in between the corporate groups, or in between the weekends, or in between the ribbon cuttings, we have a group of eight to 10 individuals who come two or three times a week and they're doing a lot of the hard work that you don't always see that goes into building a house.

Lisa Munter: That's wonderful. So you do not need to have a skillset in order to volunteer. If I wanted to come and volunteer, even though I don't have painting skills, if I know how to hold a paintbrush, will there be somebody there to help explain or guide us?

Adam Feldman: Yeah. Right. All right. So here's a great question about relationships and what makes sometimes one of the hardest things about my job is that we get those type of inquiries all the time. "I have no skills and I want to help." When we first started, so we've been around for 30 years, but I've been doing this for about six or seven. So when I first started, I wanted to build relationships. So everyone who called me, I said yes to, no matter what. Yeah, "You're a corporation, show up. You want 10 people, you want 500 people, I'll figure it out. Just come and visit, come to our site. I don't care who you are, what your skills are, we will accommodate anything." And then probably years around two through five, we started to be a little bit more picky because when you bring an unskilled person on the build site, it's work.

Lisa Munter: Yes.

Adam Feldman: It's a burden. It actually decreases our mission because I have to train you how to paint.

Lisa Munter: That's right.

Adam Feldman: And so we have to learn how to say no or guide them to a better fit. And then most recently, over the past, I'd say we've drawn a pretty hard line in terms of if you are unskilled and you want to learn from us, we need something in exchange. I can't just, "You want to learn how to paint and your board and you want to volunteer? That's not enough to get you on our build site because it actually hurts our mission." It's the same thing. We have a ReStore where people make donations. And we've had to learn to say, "I know grandma's old chair means a lot to you, but we're not going to be able to sell it. And it takes up lots of space and we're going to end up putting it in the dump." So we have to say no a lot. And that is not easy because people take it personally. And so it's a hard conversation that we continue to improve on. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don't. But that's about our relationship building. It's not always a great fit. And I have practiced enough where I've learned to just be 100% transparent. "Let me just walk you through the process. If you come on the site, you're going to slow us down. I don't want to slow down because I have families to take care of." And as long as you bring it back to the mission, people usually understand. And then the next phase is listening. "Well, what do you actually want to do? What is your skillset? How can I fit? Let's find a path. Maybe you sit on this committee, maybe you work at the ReStore. Maybe you sit on my board. Maybe you do government advocacy. Maybe I can introduce you to another nonprofit who actually could use your skillset." So I've learned to kindly say no. Usually when people call, they want to do construction.

Lisa Munter: Yes.

Adam Feldman: And so now I learned to say, "Please bring your corporation and bring money, and/ or let me find you a different fit." And that's the short version. But it's never ever an easy conversation and not all of them have gone well.

Lisa Munter: Yeah, let's be frank, right?

Adam Feldman: Yeah, no.

Lisa Munter: But that's okay because it's not a one size fits all. You're trying to make it work. And I love that there's all these different layers of opportunity that people can connect with you. So if it's not financially, maybe they have time that they can give to you. Or I love about the Restore, everybody has some things in their house that maybe are gently used that they don't have a need for. That's another way that they can connect with you.

Adam Feldman: And the ReStore will just come pick it up. It's super easy, it's another way to help Habitat.

Lisa Munter: That's amazing. So do you take picture? Do you ask the people to take a picture ahead of time so you can assess it a little bit?

Adam Feldman: Correct. Yeah. So again, some people will be like, "I called a junk removal company. They were going to charge me $10,000 or I'll try Habitat, they'll come and pick it up." And I'm like, "Well, if you think it's junk and I also think it's junk."

Lisa Munter: That's right. Because if people that we're serving, we want them to feel good about some of the things that they're able to put into the homes.

Adam Feldman: Yeah, no, these things don't get put in Habitat Homes.

Lisa Munter: Oh.

Adam Feldman: They're sold. Yeah, we sell them.

Lisa Munter: I just learned something. Yeah.

Adam Feldman: Okay. So at our Restore, anyone can come shop and anyone can donate, and all of the items are then sold, and those profits go to do down payment assistance for our families. So it's a whole separate business, which has its own relationships.

Lisa Munter: That is really interesting. So see, that goes to one of my things that I hear all the time from nonprofits where they're saying, "People think we just do this, but really if we had a chance to tell our story, we could share with them that we actually also do this, this, and this. And we are more multi layered." I just learned something. I had no idea that that was that. So I appreciate that. Do you find that to be true with Habitat being a national brand that people still don't really understand who you are?

Adam Feldman: Yeah. The most common misconception is that we give our homes away for free, so that's a standard. And honestly, sometimes that works for fund- raising because people want to give money towards that. But that's not actually what we do. We sell our homes. And so we help the families through the entire mortgage process. So they have to do a budget, and then they have to make sure their credit's good, then they have to go talk to a bank, and then we help them apply for grants for other down payment assistance. So that is the hard part that no one ever sees or ever thinks about. And so sometimes I'd say, well, it's harder to be a Habitat homeowner than it's to be a regular owner. For me, it was, "Get job, pay bills, show up at bank, fill out papers, sign, down payment, move in." In Habitat it's all of those things. Plus actually learn what credit is, fix my credit, beg and plead a bank to give me a mortgage. The mortgage is not enough to buy me anything in this community. Find a partner like Habitat to do it with me, and then put in sweat equity rather than actual cash equity. So that means 100 hours at minimum. So they're there twice a week, evenings, coming to events, putting in all that extra time because they don't earn enough money in their jobs that they do. Because if you're making $15 an hour, you're not going to be able to save $2,000. The math just does not work.

Lisa Munter: That's right. So then you have partnerships with some of those other backend organizations that need to be part of them being able to be a homeowner.

Adam Feldman: Correct. Yeah. And there's lots of layers.

Lisa Munter: And there's a lot of layers.

Adam Feldman: Yeah.

Lisa Munter: So obviously with that, you have many layers of connections that you need to make. What are some of the frustrations that you find with making those connections and what could make that easier?

Adam Feldman: So it's always a function of time. People say, "Well do more." And it's hard to scale me or anyone on my team. We have a limited amount of time, a little amount of energy, and we are committed to the relationship and relationships take time, and effort, and energy. And so you can only have so many. And so time is always the hardest thing. And not only my time, but it's also the relationships time. So if I meet a business owner, they also are running a business. I'm asking them for a favor to take time out of their day. And so I also have to be sensitive to their time as well. So it's not just mine, it goes in both directions. And so the hardest thing is always time. And then the other thing that I find difficult is people don't appreciate the different ways to communicate. So almost everyone on my team, they're probably sick of me telling them, I say it takes 10 emails to get one phone call. So they're, "They're not following up. They're not responding to my email." And I'm like, "Well, one phone call is worth 10 email, so try calling." And then it's like, "All right, well guess what? 10 phone calls is worth one meeting in a coffee shop. So push to get the coffee shop." Because now that's worth 100 emails, and then one dinner and you can just go down. And then you're like, "If you get invited to their wedding, that is worth a million emails. So you can either write a million emails or you can work towards getting invited to their wedding, which do you want to do? And which is more fun and which feels better. And so stop writing emails as part of your relationship and try to get invited to their wedding." That's the spectrum. And it starts usually with a phone call. And it's a little old school and people make fun of me. They're like, "You're always on the phone." I'm like, "No. Well, I'm talking to someone, building relationships."

Lisa Munter: That's right.

Adam Feldman: And so it's a weird concept, but some people get it, some people do it, some people don't do it. And the beautiful thing is once you establish that relationship, then that one email works.

Lisa Munter: That's right. It's that warm leads that you're looking for. And then it's about the sustainable relationship that you can both cultivate, right?

Adam Feldman: Right. Well, then an email is sufficient, but you don't start with an email. It just doesn't work.

Lisa Munter: No, it does not.

Adam Feldman: Even with my brand. And so if you're coming from a non-profit that has no brand, or if you're just sitting here on the business side and you're a sales person and no one's ever heard of what you're selling, don't do an email. It's efficient because you can blast out a million and maybe three people call you back, but a phone call is worth 10 emails.

Lisa Munter: Yeah, that's a really good point to keep in mind and moving forward and I'm sure a lot of our nonprofit friends listening will be like, "Okay, that's something." And on the business side, too, right?

Adam Feldman: That's a business skill.

Lisa Munter: It doesn't matter, it is a business.

Adam Feldman: That's where I learned it. I know, I was in sales. That's my first boss, when I was in my twenties, I was at Lehman Brothers on the trading floor, and he gave me the same story. He said, "Get invited to their wedding." He's like, "I went to five weddings this year, all of clients."

Lisa Munter: It works.

Adam Feldman: Right. It works. And then you can be silly and relaxed and goofy and have fun and have a authentic real relationship. And yes, there are transactions associated with this part of the business, but that's okay.

Lisa Munter: Well, I love that. And really just in our short amount of time together, just understanding that there's so many different layers and facets to what Habitat for Humanity, what they do, who they support? And all the different arenas that they fall into because I feel like it's a win, win, win, win on al realms.

Adam Feldman: Yeah. We try our best. And so for example, the city of Glens Falls, it's a mile by mile, so they just don't have land, period. That's the geographic fact. So it's very hard to build there. And so they came to me saying, "Adam, you're a thought leader in housing. Just help us." And so we just sat in a room and we listened to each other. That was the first, listening. I didn't come with a solution. I listened to their challenge. And one of the things they said is, "We need units, period. And we need them fast, period. We appreciate that you're doing one unit at a time. That's not fast enough. What else do you got?" And so then I had to say, "All right. Well, how do I think beyond our standard model?" And we actually purchased two buildings that have across 10 rental units that were empty that we are now rehabbing.

Lisa Munter: Congratulations.

Adam Feldman: Thanks. And so moderate rehab. And again, that's not our expertise in the affordable rental space. So I went to the local agencies who do that. So I went to Jason at the White House and said, "At all these meetings, everyone is saying we need more rentals. We are transitioning people through hotel rooms or through sitting on a bed or whatever. We just need more landlords who can do affordable rentals, and/or we just need more units." So I went to him and said, "You're always asking for these. I have 10 for you. How fast can you fill them?" He said, "Now".

Lisa Munter: Wow.

Adam Feldman: Yeah. So we're actually going to be housing the first five individuals in the middle of February.

Lisa Munter: Oh, my God.

Adam Feldman: And then the next five will be ready in the middle of April.

Lisa Munter: Congratulations.

Adam Feldman: And that's not our standard model but we listened to the community and we said we'll be creative and we'll come up with a solution because no one else is doing it. And that's what the community needs. And again, it's a win, win, win. So the city is super happy. It generates actually free cash flow for Habitat. We got a loan and everything, but it's a business, a rental business. And then we're supporting another non-profit agency. And then the ultimate goal of supporting the families or individuals who are going to be living there. So they have simple, basic homes. They work, and we got new floor, new paint, new appliances. So it feels really nice.

Lisa Munter: Oh my gosh, I have the goosebumps. That is the true definition of impact.

Adam Feldman: Thanks.

Lisa Munter: And so I love what you do, and obviously you're one of a few staff that encompasses Habitat. So I learned some new things about Habitat, but I'd like to close this about making it about you. And what is something that people would not know about you or would be surprised to know about you that you would like to share?

Adam Feldman: Yeah. So I would always say it depends on who I'm sitting across the table from. So I wear so many hats. Like I said, I was an investment banker doing murders and acquisitions in New York City. So if you didn't know I was from New York City, you'd have no idea that I was a banker because there are no other bankers running... If you know me through only Habitat, they might see me play with my children. I have a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, and they say, "Wow, you're so good with kids." And I'd say, "Well, I've taught 3000 of them." So prior to this, I owned a small business called Go Kids, and we've talked to thousands of children. And then I sold that business onto my employee so they could sort of pass the legacy on. And then if I go back and visit with my old New York City friends from Wall Street, they're like, "Why are you crazy, man? You work twice as hard and make one 10th of money that we ever did. I never would've..." They probably would've guessed because they could tell that I didn't really fit in culturally in that world, but they'd never, "Why are you running a non- profit?" So again, those are three completely different things. So it's always who I'm sitting across the table from will be the confusing part.

Lisa Munter: Well, I love that. But it's just something more to learn about and understand about you that makes people connect to you as a person who is running a very impactful mission in our community.

Adam Feldman: Well, thanks.

Lisa Munter: I really appreciate this time with you today and being part of this podcast, and I'm really looking forward to our connections and our relationships with one another in the future.

Adam Feldman: Yeah, and I'm always happy... I'm a storyteller at heart, that's what we do. So I got plenty of stories across multiple topics, so happy to come back and share anytime.

Lisa Munter: Great. Thank you so much.