For nonprofits, affecting change often requires thinking outside the box. Fast Company Executive Board member Ashley Sharp explains how her lived experience and innovative approach to fundraising revolutionized Dwell with Dignity.
One of the most devastating, if less visible, outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a rise in homelessness across the United States; at the end of 2020, some 600,000 people were unhoused (and potentially more who were not able to be counted). Many lost their homes after losing their jobs and taking other financial hits that stemmed from pandemic-related lockdowns and closures. While “housing first” policies have historically shown good outcomes for individuals but mixed results at the community level, studies have revealed the benefits of specifically housing families together. This practice promotes not only recovery from some of the contributing factors of homelessness (mental illness, substance abuse), but also helps keep kids out of foster homes and yields better academic and social outcomes. Dwell with Dignity, an organization in Dallas, TX, is leveraging the time and talent of volunteers, along with ample donations and a profitable earned-income stream, to provide families with an aesthetic, personally-designed, sustainable home that allows them to thrive.
Dwell with Dignity’s executive director and frontwoman, Ashley Sharp, has an uncommon awareness of the struggles her organization’s clients face, having lived them herself. After graduating from a prestigious undergraduate program at UT-Dallas with a dual degree in arts administration and performance and undergoing a brief stint as a dancer training with the New York City Rockettes, Sharp began working in the arts—first for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and then for the Nasher Sculpture Center, rubbing elbows with the city’s elite. Before long, however, a pull to servant leadership led her into social services, beginning work as Dwell with Dignity’s executive director four years ago.
At the same time, Sharp’s personal life was in crisis: Her husband struggled with substance abuse, resulting in Sharp and her then two-year-old son leaving home in the middle of the night, taking only what Sharp could fit in her car.
For Sharp, the experience reinforced the precarious nature of many families’ housing situations. “It was like…I have a master’s degree, I’m making $60 to $70,000 a year, and I’m homeless,” she recalls. “It can literally happen to anyone at any time. And it’s just made me so appreciative of what our families go through.”
Under Sharp’s leadership, in four years Dwell with Dignity has grown from a small, bare-bones nonprofit that served around 180 people to a social entrepreneurial venture operating on an astonishing 60% earned revenue. The yearly Thrift Studio, a 30-day pop-up shop at which high-end donated furniture and other items are sold to the public, nets a yearly average of $600,000, allowing Dwell with Dignity to serve some 7,000 people yearly, for free, by combining these funds with philanthropic donations. The organization has also designed spaces for local NPR and PBS affiliates, as well as the Dallas Mavericks, Toyota, and the Container Store, and Habitat for Humanity.
A more complacent individual might rest on their laurels, but Sharp is relentlessly curious and insatiably driven. She holds an advanced degree in nonprofit management from UT-Dallas, recently completed the UT-Austin LBJ Women’s Campaign School, and is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in executive leadership through UPenn. She is also putting on a TEDx conference in Dallas in October.
Alongside these pursuits, Sharp remains resolutely committed to growing Dwell with Dignity. In addition to constantly exploring new corporate partnerships and new ways to help families, Sharp maintains a keen eye on the internal workings of the organization, keeping the organization diverse and fun, and refusing to pay any of her full-time employees less than $50,000 per year “because that’s just not liveable.” By taking care of her people, she has ensured strong employee engagement and retention, even in the midst of the Great Resignation.
For Sharp, wearing many different hats is not a burden, but a privilege—one that feels particularly hard-won. “I’m so type A, high energy,” she admits, laughing. “There’s so much to do. I guess I’ve been through a lot in life. And I’ve realized that if you’re hitting a path of resistance, you’re not supposed to go that way—so then I go the opposite direction, and see where it takes me.”