Leading Neighborhood House into the future
Neighborhood House has some important decisions to make in the coming months. Should the Southwest Portland-based nonprofit organization continue to expand its coverage base or narrow its focus? How should it pivot to address receding government funding? How does it connect with neglected demographics? For the first time in nearly 20 years, a new executive director will help spearhead those thorny discussions. This summer, Chris Chiacchierini replaced longtime executive director Rick Nitti, who retired in June after serving since 1999. "It feels great to be able to hand the reins to Chris. He has all of the skills we were seeking, and I know Neighborhood House will continue to thrive under his leadership," Nitti said in a press release. While Nitti worked at settlement houses in Chicago prior to joining Neighborhood House, Chiacchierini has spent much of his adult life working for a university and in various sectors of the nonprofit world. He began his life of service while attending Notre Dame University, where he volunteered at a homeless shelter. And during one eye-opening summer, he volunteered at a camp for children diagnosed with cancer. "That was an emotional experience. As we would say goodbye to kids at the end of the week, we knew some wouldn't be at camp next year. But we also knew that some of them would. I worked with counselors who had gone to camp when they were younger. This was one of the most important experiences of their young lives, because they had the opportunity to take a respite from being sick," Chiacchierini said. "I think that was an experience that gave me an opportunity to truly be of service to others, and that continued through my first experience in the workforce." Chiacchierini later served as a Jesuit volunteer at the DePaul Youth Treatment Center in Portland, where he served individuals facing substance abuse issues and took classes on community, social justice, spirituality and simple living. After earning a master's of fine arts in creative writing at Eastern Washington University, he began a long tenure at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in 1997 and worked his way up to the position of vice president for planning and operations. During his time there, OCOM became the first alternative-medicine institution to earn a National Institution of Health research grant. Chiacchierini sees ample similarities between running a university and a nonprofit. Both must capture the hearts and minds of potential funders via compelling storytelling, he said. He and his colleagues learned this lesson around 2008, when the great recession and expanding competition forced them to take up altered and more aggressive marketing strategies. To prove that their university was worth supporting, they decided to track not only student competency but also evaluated the success of their alumni's treatment practices. "For the first time, we asked, 'How do we compete?' For a nonprofit, that
is sometimes considered a dirty word. But the truth is that all nonprofits are competing for funding. Those that do a better job of establishing outcomes and demonstrating to funders that they are successful at achieving what they set out to do, those are the ones that compete better than those that aren't paying attention to that," Chiacchierini said. Chiacchierini left the university in 2016 to become the executive director of Incight, which helps the disabled gain education and employment. He served there for 13 months but disagreed with the founders about the direction of the organization and departed in June. Chiacchierini believes in setting ambitious benchmarks and using quantitative and qualitative data to track an organization's progression toward specific goals. He and Neighborhood House have yet to identify specific goals for the future, but he expects to do so in the coming months. However, he already has some ideas and questions in mind. For one, he would like to see the organization connect with and help a more diverse swath of the population. "I think you could probably go across the board, but I think certainly our competency in serving the
LQBTQ community could be improved, as well as our competency in serving the mental health community, our housing services and our competency with communities of color," he said. He also hopes to foster a more culturally inclusive atmosphere and would consider hiring a more diverse staff to meet the needs of these groups. 'As far as diversifying our workforce and our hiring practices, I don't think it's difficult to hire diversity. I think it's difficult to maintain a welcoming environment that meets the needs of people from different cultures and different backgrounds. Until we are able to create that culture here, retention becomes an issue," Chiacchierini said. Neighborhood House has already developed a reputation for helping a wider array of citizens than most nonprofits of similar ilk. The organization has programs for parents, preschoolers, low-income residents, immigrants and senior citizens, among others. However, Multnomah County has recently allocated more funding to culturally specific organizations. Moving forward, Neighborhood House will have to decide whether to specialize, expand or maintain its current model.
"One of our strengths is we have a really broad set of services that follow individuals for a long period of their lives. But it can also be a limitation when we're spread in a wide variety of services. The question comes up, 'Are we focused?' That's a question the board really needs to think about and talk about," Chiacchierini said. He wouldn't identify his particular preference, though, and said he will take an egalitarian approach to the decision. "I think it's a community decision. I'm somewhat agnostic on the direction I would like to see it go. What I would like each and every individual to ask themselves is, 'How do we want to change the world?' Are we doing what we intended to do? Is Neighborhood House on the ground doing what I came here to help them do?'" Chiacchierini said. That being said, he did acknowledge that providing a senior living facility on Neighborhood House's property in Multnomah Village is a project that's being considered for the next few years. "We're in the early stages of looking at the opportunity to put a building there that would start to address some senior housing issues that the City of Portland is experiencing," he
said. "The demand for low-cost housing for seniors continues to increase." Chiacchierini said he is assessing the organization's current budget to make sure Neighborhood House can weather potential setbacks, such as another recession. Increasing funding is a top priority, he said, and he hopes to be able to convince funders that the organization is worth investing in. Currently, 80 percent of Neighborhood House's funding comes from the government. "Government funding is up and down at best. It's inconsistent. And in certain areas, it's been declining. That's always the challenge for every nonprofit. I would argue that makes the inward focus important for us. We have to be able to demonstrate and tell stories. We might be sustainable year-to-year, but it changes. But let's say the funding changes or the program changes — that's a stressor that's introduced into the system. If our model is designed only to succeed when things stay the same, then we're not sustainable," Chiacchierini said. During Nitti's tenure, Neighborhood House changed markedly. It nearly tripled its budget and staff, expanded to North and Northeast Portland and added additional programs. Now, Chichierinni will take his turn leading the organization into the future. "The hope whenever we make these transitions is that organizations find the right individual for the time," he said. "I think that's ultimately the hope of the board." For more about Neighborhood House and the service it provides, call 503-246-1663 or visit nhpdx.org.