By Delisa Burnell-Smith, Vice President and COO 

In late 2022, I had the incredible opportunity to join the NeighborWorks Achieving Excellence Program (AE) alongside 49 other CEOs and nonprofit leaders. This prestigious program, partnered with Harvard Kennedy School in Boston, empowers us to tackle critical challenges impacting our organizations and communities. 

What sets AE apart is its focus on action. Instead of simply adding to your plate, it helps you prioritize tasks that drive real progress towards your goals. It’s a transformative journey, and for my organization, NeighborWorks Waco (NWW), it represents a significant shift. 

The 18-month program offered a rich learning experience. We participated in face-to-face sessions, virtual meetings, small group discussions, and received personalized coaching. I was fortunate to be guided by Sara Orozco, whom I previously met during a NeighborWorks America REDI (Race, Ethnicity, Diversity, and Inclusion) program in 2017. 

The program equips leaders with the skills and strategies to drive positive change and excel in their roles. With a focus on innovation, diversity, and inclusion, it empowers us to create lasting impact and build vibrant communities. As participants, we identified performance challenges crucial to our organizations’ and communities’ futures. For NWW, this included incorporating a strong REDI perspective. 

An effective performance challenge shouldn’t be easy. It should push you beyond the status quo, prompting a shift in how you serve your clients. Success also requires collaboration – involving staff, board members, and other partners. 

NWW has a history of adapting to new challenges, as demonstrated during the 2008 housing market downturn. Roy Nash’s participation in the 2008-2009 AE program led to the creation of our successful PEARLS and PRIDE Program, a testament to NWW’s resilience. 

Our current performance challenge focuses on providing affordable rental units through a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) development, targeting individuals earning below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI). Many families in this bracket struggle with high rental burdens, exceeding 30% of their income. Additionally, our city faces a general shortage of affordable housing. While achieving this goal will be a multi-year effort, starting now is crucial. 

On March 1, 2024, I proudly received my certificate from Harvard Kennedy School, marking the completion of their segment of the program. My participation has yielded immense benefits, including access to assessment tools, professional development, peer learning, valuable resources, networking opportunities, and executive coaching. 

I’m excited for NWW’s future in developing affordable rental solutions. Stay tuned for updates on our progress!