Moving Beyond the “Wall of Shame” And Reaching Consensus

If you’ve ever run a program, any program, you know what it’s like to keep a mental list of things you know your program should put in place, if only you could get your head above water. Sometimes you also have a list of things you weren’t prepared for and didn’t handle that well, and it can feel a little bit embarrassing – like posting your inadequacies on a “wall of shame.”

I first heard the phrase, “wall of shame,” on a recent trip to Ellensburg, WA. I had been invited to the North West Community Land Trust Coalition’s Fall Salon to present our work on the Stewardship Standards project and to get feedback on a handful of proposed standards. I was thrilled to be surrounded by a great group of dedicated housing professionals, some with small and brand new programs, others with sizable portfolios. I asked everyone to take a quick poll of ten standards and decide which ones were “necessary” – truly critical to running an effective program – and which ones were “optimal” – great for really high level programs, but you can still run a good program without it.

After everyone completed the poll, we had a discussion about the individual standards, and I quickly saw a pattern emerge. When I asked folks why they thought a standard was optimal, but not necessary, the answer went something like this:

“Well this is a really great idea and I sure wish that we could do this, in fact we’re just starting to put something like this in place, but we’ve been running our program for ten years now without doing this, so it’s optimal but not necessary.”

Luckily other participants helped reframe the conversation. One suggested that instead of thinking about what your agency is doing, think about what every agency out there doing this work should be doing. Another reassured the group that we all have our “wall of shame.” Once that was on the table, the conversation moved swimmingly. People gave thoughtful feedback about which practices lead to excellence. We didn’t agree on everything as a group, but we reached a lot of consensus.

That’s what this project is all about. As an industry, we need to set the bar high, because setting the bar low just keeps us from our full potential. The goal of developing standards is NOT to be punitive and point fingers at those organizations who aren’t doing everything perfectly. The goal is to make it easier to help programs improve. It was easy to get people behind the idea of gathering and disseminating best practices that will help programs excel, but it was harder than expected to get people to agree on which of the industry standards we proposed were truly at the core of an effective program – until we moved past the “wall of shame.”

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