Don’t Confuse Experience with Expertise or Evidence

In May, I was speaking at a Summit in Pensacola, Florida. A large group had gathered from Northwest Florida to hear about the state’s work in ending homelessness and practices in ending homelessness. I love these sorts of engagements, especially when I am given half a day to walk people through the critical details rather than just hitting the high points as I may do in a keynote or media interview.

In the morning session, I was absolutely astounded by Volunteers of America. Staff were there to speak about securing funding for operations and sustainability of those sources. To start, however, they got into talking about their approach to supporting people in housing. According to them, they will do whatever it takes to support a person to get out of homelessness forever, but that housing first does not work. Grant and per diem programs were, apparently critical for some people, as were shelters or other types of transitional programs for others. When I asked, “Where is the evidence?” there wasn’t any. When they touted the amazing success of their approach compared to all other approaches I asked about control groups and comparison studies. To paraphrase what I put on Twitter, it was amongst the worst opinion-laden crap that they were putting forth as fact that I had ever heard.

 

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Two things then happened that were not a surprise to me. For one, the speaker had no evidence. Zip. Zilch. Nada. But he did call upon other Volunteers of Americas staff in the room to share stories and anecdotes. The second thing? The speaker and other Volunteers of America staff in the room then talked about how “in all of their years of experience” they know what works and what doesn’t, and then reached to communicate with the crowd that they too just know what works and what doesn’t…that housing first and rapid rehousing may make for good academic studies but does not work on the ground.

There was zero proof that any of their ideas were rooted in fact. There was zero proof that any evaluation had ever actually occurred. There was zero capacity to meaningfully answer the questions they were asked to provide evidence to support their ideas. And that is a problem. Especially when they were there to talk about how they brings in gobs of money in Florida and nationally.

How does an organization as large as Volunteers of America get as big as they get, with the volume of funding they get in communities throughout the United States? I am not so naive as to think the small sample size of Volunteers of America staff speaking in Pensacola are indicative of the entire organization, even though they made claims that theirs was the position of the entire organization. I think the bigger issue is that we (the collective we…funders, government, continua, other service providers, etc.) continue to confuse experience with evidence…that just because a person or organization has been around a long time that must mean they are effective and qualified.

And when a large organization has information that they are sharing challenged publicly? Well, never underestimate an organization’s desire for self-preservation. They doubled down. They indicated they could not stay for my session in the afternoon which talked about theory, practice and EVIDENCE of how to operate effective housing programs. The reason? They had a plane to catch. Which, like they said during their morning session was not true. How do I know? They were at the airport later in the afternoon waiting for their flight at the exact same time I was waiting for my flight. Oops on their part. Here is proof:

 

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About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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