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WCF / Community Resilience  / Shared Learning: Capacity Building for Local Housing Providers
Image of temporary shelter depicts mats and dedicated sleeping areas.

Shared Learning: Capacity Building for Local Housing Providers

Earlier this year, the Whatcom Community Foundation partnered with the City of Bellingham to learn together about the needs and challenges of our local small and mid-sized housing and shelter providers. The findings were compiled in the a report in September 2023: Capacity Building for small and mid-sized housing and shelter providers: Needs, priorities, and recommendations by Sara Lawson of Shorthand Consulting. 

Below you will find the Executive Summary of this report, an the link to read the full document. The findings of this study, as well as our conversations with nonprofit partners throughout Whatcom County has inspired the Whatcom Community Foundation to dedicate its 2024 Fund for Whatcom County Grant Round to grantmaking to support nonprofit sector staff health and wellness.  

Read the full report: Capacity Building for small and mid-sized housing and shelter providers: Needs, priorities, and recommendations


Executive Summary

The City of Bellingham (COB) and Whatcom Community Foundation (WCF) (the project partners) recognize that recent years have brought tremendous strain to organizations and staff providing housing and shelter services in Bellingham, and simply maintaining existing capabilities has been a challenge for many. At the same time, the need for shelter and services has grown. Capacity support is clearly a need.

The COB has committed $200,000 from general funds to a capacity-building initiative, focused on supporting organizations that are getting ready to or are in the process of expanding capacity, including expanding the capacity of new staff to maintain and strengthen existing housing programs. As a precursor to developing a capacity-building program, the project partners teamed up to assess the capacity-building needs of small-to-mid-sized nonprofit organizations working in this sector, to better understand the key operational challenges that organizations are facing, and to gather input on what kinds of supports would help to sustain and/or expand their capacity to deliver housing and shelter services.

The insights gained from this interview/survey process will be used by the project partners to:

• Enhance organizational resources and supports

• Share information about needs and priorities with other funders

• Educate policy makers about the issues that participant organizations are working to address and the kinds of challenges that they are facing


Nine small-to-mid-sized organizations were identified by the project partners, and lead staff from each organization were invited to participate (See Appendices A and B). To encourage the free flow of information and ideas, a third party was hired to conduct the interviews and to collect and interpret the survey data. Interview questions were circulated to participants in advance (see Appendix C), with the request that participants gather input from their teams in advance of the interviews. Hour-long interviews were conducted in June, 2023.

A confidential follow-up survey—including ideas generated during the interviews—was conducted in July, 2023. There were both open-ended questions, and quantitative questions (rankings or ratings on a 5-point scale). Some of the survey questions included participant suggestions from the interviews. While some of these suggestions may not be actionable within the current regulatory environment, and some of them may not fit within a government-funded capacity-building initiative, they were included in an effort to inform longer-term conversations among policymakers as well as public and private funders in the region.



The organizations interviewed in this project are working during a time of multiple, complex, sustained pressures. Interviews and survey responses echoed these trends, and the challenges they present:

• Increases in homelessness and housing instability. According to the 2023 Point in Time Count Report1, there was a roughly 27% increase in homelessness from 2022 to 2023, including among seniors, families with children, veterans, and people with illnesses or disabilities.

• Low housing inventory and rapidly rising housing costs. The cost of rent in Bellingham has increased 22% since 2020. The median rental price for a one-bedroom unit has ranged from a low of $900 in August 2018 to a high of $1,483 in April 20232.

• Stabilization assistance that was available during the pandemic has ended.


How these trends are playing out for participating organizations:

• Significant increases in waiting lists for housing: As one organization put it, “Our waiting list is four times longer than it was before COVID”.

• Overtaxed emergency resources related to lack of other housing options: People end up lingering in crisis shelters or hotels because there isn’t enough transitional, supportive, or affordable long-term housing. As one organization put it, “We’re doing a lot more rapid rehousing, but that relies on units that don’t exist, and clients are staying in hotels way longer because there’s no place for them to go – this isn’t a great solution at scale.”

• An increase in the complexity of needs among the people they serve: Several organizations report an increase in mental health challenges, substance use (including new types of street drugs), dual diagnosis (substance use and mental health challenges), and medical fragility.

• Financial stress: Inflation and higher costs of living mean that grant funding, contract dollars, and housing vouchers don’t go as far as they used to.

• Declining availability of volunteers. One organization lost 80% of its volunteers because of the social-distancing requirements and other challenges of the pandemic.

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