Housing associations need to reclaim the ground on social purpose - 24Housing

By Max du Bois

As featured in 24housing, by Max du Bois.

The housing association sector has been undergoing seismic changes of late, obscuring a potentially damaging and insidious erosion of their social purpose. This is something that is due, in a large part, to their commercial counterparts encroaching on their space and claiming their ‘language’.

As housing associations become increasingly disrupted by a raft of mergers and funding issues, their focus is turning to survival rather than their ethical heart.

Which is why it is time they reclaim the ground on social purpose, otherwise they are missing a golden opportunity, not only to create compelling emotional engagement, but to motivate staff and re-kindle residents’ pride and attract the right partners.

In their quest for cash, some of the big commercial players have produced really shabbily finished and maintained properties.

Housing associations on the other hand may lack the marketing budgets or scale, but their strength rests on their vision to build great communities and neighbourhoods.

Their narrative is founded on well managed properties where maintenance is done well and effectively. The underlying message here is a focus on maintaining the value of people’s biggest debt and potential asset, producing a quality build and finish.

As a consequence, housing associations have truly authentic tried and tested visions and generic values they should be ramping up. Yet most value statements we are seeing in the sector have become generic, bland and un-differentiating.

Not being bold enough is allowing those in the commercial sector to gain valuable ground, mainly by mirroring housing association’s core branding messages.

It is essential to ensure housing associations’ brands are firing on all cylinders and using the full potential of their authentic values. Here are some of the best ways to do so:

Cut out the generic ‘table stake’ values

‘Table stakes’ are those values that are shared across a sector, expected and assumed by all but that are often considered ‘things that we should probably say’.

The main problem with using a ‘table stake’ as a value is that the obvious gets stated and repetition sets in. We are now seeing the commercial sector using such table stakes as ‘buying in London has never been more affordable’ and ‘homes for all Londoners’, through to ‘we’ll be there every time you need us’.

Housing associations too seem to rely on ‘affordable’ which has become almost universal in the sector and as a consequence has little impact. Many housing associations have lost the value and heart of their social mission as the commercial pressure leach out into the outside world.

The bare minimum to aim for when choosing and expressing values is to not waste everyone’s time by simply telling them what type of organisation they can expect to find in the housing association sector.

Know the difference between values and behaviours

Don’t confuse ‘values’ and ‘behaviours’. Values are external communications tools and behaviours are internal management tools. They do have a similar sounding, positive, meaning-laden vocabulary.

Again, using ‘affordable’ and ‘there for you’ are examples of this.

The simple rule is this: ‘Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh!’ In other words, demonstrate you are caring, supportive, transparent, etc. and use the values statement for something really engaging and differentiating.

The key difference is that behaviours are ‘the standards you operate to’ and values are ‘the principles behind your actions’.

When these two get confused a crucial opportunity to engage and connect is lost. In the worst examples we found values statements that read like the internal strategy documents they were probably copied and pasted from!

Be bold and be different

In addition to those relying on generic ‘table stakes’ and standard internal behaviours, many housing associations don’t explicitly talk about their values at all.

If playing it safe will leave you drowned out, indistinct and un-engaging does that mean you have to be ‘dangerous’? No, not dangerous and certainly not reckless but bold, ambitious, leading and real.

And different. Given that so many housing associations are clamouring for attention it is vital to be different. Drawing your values out from the organisation and telling them well will go a long way to achieving this.

Tell people who you are and why it matters that you exist. If you don’t take a stand for something, you may as well not stand for anything. By trying to please everyone and playing it safe, you could risk not getting through to anyone.

Rounding up

Remember, in a crowded market, people will listen to you and give you time when they share the values that drive your approach.

Don’t waste the opportunity to use value statements to say something really engaging and differentiating.

When emotional engagement is the goal, lead with the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ or ‘how’.

Your values are about why you do what you do. Values are about the principles that drive you.

Stand for something, cause a reaction, get past the obvious and taken for granted, remember who you represent and find something genuine, then people will make you the change-maker you were conceived to be.