Make Something People Want, Even if They’re Not Paying

New Story is a nonprofit that builds homes and communities for families living in survival mode around the world. We believe that home and land ownership can be a path out of poverty and we aim to raise standards for all organizations and initiatives that address housing for the base of the pyramid.

Thirty minutes outside of Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, lies a rural town called Titanyen. The area was once a mass grave and later, a garbage dump where some of Haiti’s poorest residents settled in order to make a living from collecting and selling their neighbors’ trash. The surrounding communities began calling this place and it’s people Titanyen, meaning “less than nothing”, and treating them accordingly.

It’s impossible to use the term “less than” when talking about Mama Sukse, a larger than life personality and long time resident of Titanyen. I met her after New Story decided to build a community in this town. Sukse will be one of its residents, moving from a tent distributed by disaster relief organizations in 2010, to a safe, cement block home. She is opinionated and boisterous but when I show her an aerial view of the property and ask her “where do you want your house on this plot of land” or “what are the priorities for your home”, her response is a shy “I’ll take whatever you can give me” and “This is my fantasy, I just hope I’m alive to see it”.

Madame Sukse (upper left) and her neighbors considering Titanyen community designs drafted by urban planners.

Recipients of aid programs are rarely engaged in meaningful conversation and when they are, it is often to determine if they qualify. Sukse and others were fearful that if they said something wrong, they would not receive a home. So she avoided giving direct answers. I would have done the same.

Temporary tent shelters given after the 2010 earthquake have become sprawling slums that persist almost 8 years later.

I am certainly not the first, and won’t be the last foreign aid worker that Sukse will interact with. No country has more NGOs per capita than Haiti. Even before the 2010 earthquake, Haitian officials conservatively estimated that 10,000 relief organizations were active in the country. Thousands of NGOs dream up tens of thousands of humanitarian projects, which yield a mixed bag of promising and broken promises. People on the receiving end of these programs, like Sukse, are typically “gifted”, “granted”, “prayed over”, and “helped”, but rarely asked, debated with, or seen as collaborators, and partners. This became increasingly obvious as my solicitation of her opinions was met with surprise.

Assuming that our western perspective is best and excluding locals in solution-making yields avoidable mistakes and wasted resources. One of the most shocking discoveries I made when starting New Story was the amount of ghost towns that exist in countries all over the world. There are clusters of new and modern homes built for families who desperately need them that lie empty. That’s right, homes that took millions of dollars and months of effort to build are not serving the populations they were intended for. In many of these cases, if the planners, funders, and builders of the project had taken a moment to listen to future residents, they would have gathered insights to influence a better final product.

One common avoidable mistake is building homes that are too far from critical social networks and income opportunities to be desirable in the long term. If you ask most families if they want to move miles from their neighborhood, they’ll say no and tell you why. Yet this one factor has contributed to thousands of modern, new homes going unused. Avoidable mistakes. Wasted resources.

Talking to end-users before, during, and after building a product contributes to more successful outcomes. This applies to both for-profit and nonprofit endeavors.

New Story is one of the few nonprofits that has gone through the San Francisco based Y Combinator (YC), viewed by many as the world’s most powerful start-up incubator. The defining motto of YC, which spends most of it’s time thinking about how ideas turn into billion dollar businesses, is “make something people want.” This seems too obvious, but many early companies begin building products or “solving problems” in a vacuum with little time spent on gathering input from their current or ideal customers — the people experiencing the problem.

Customer conversations give insights that make products/services more likely to be used and thus, successful. Spending countless hours in the early days listening to customers was one of the primary reasons AirBnB, a YC portfolio company, was able to turn a seemingly creepy concept (staying in a stranger’s home) into a movement grounded in trust and belonging.

In the nonprofit space, the same motto applies. Our customers are people like Sukse and her neighbors and building with their input is the key ingredient for ensuring best outcomes. For us, success is not the tres commas club, but the most important work we could ever do — ending human suffering and inequity.

When we assured Sukse that we genuinely wanted her feedback and that her answers wouldn’t jeopardize her receipt of a home, she blossomed. From her, and other families, we received invaluable information based on their contextual insight and cultural nuances. They guided us on marketplace placement, community layout preferences, trash maintenance, safety concerns, and so much more.

Madame Sukse (center) proudly holding up a community design she and her fellow future residents influenced.

While we don’t have for-profit motives, the same basic principle applies: “make something people want.” In our case, living by this rule does not only validate and utilize the perspective of individuals like Sukse, but it ensures that New Story does not perpetuate the age-old challenge of well-intentioned but ineffective development attempts. Out with the ghost towns, and in with user-centered, built-to-last communities.

A community built by New Story in Minotrie, Haiti