By Hilary Masell Oswald, reprinted from CityGate.
Editor’s note: The 5280 Fellowship in the Denver metro area was the fellowship model used to frame and expand CityGate Fellowship partnerships. The first of those partnerships was Circle City Fellows in Indianapolis. In April and May, we will feature a story of impact from each of these cities to paint a picture of the work-integrated justice and service endeavors we hope to see other future CityGate Fellowship partners creating for their cities, through the vocational stewardship of their fellows.
When Dave Umphress became a realtor in 2012 – after several years of working with the Navigators, helping college grads transition to so-called “normal life” – he quickly realized that real estate would be an excellent industry to help him underwrite nonprofits he cared about. “For years and years, we gave [to nonprofits] through the income of the business, which was fine,” he says, “until I met Denver Institute.”
The introduction was a peculiar one: Through his work with Blood:Water Mission, a Nashville-based organization that partners with grassroots workers in African nations to provide clean water and support people living with HIV/AIDS, Dave was on a trip to Africa. More specifically, he was on a “death-defying hike,” he says, to a church built high on a rock. “One of the other people on the hike was telling some else about Denver Institute,” he says. “I thought, ‘That sounds fascinating.’” She introduced Dave to COO Brian Gray, who leads the Institute’s 5280 Fellowship, which Dave undertook in 2019.
“Early on, Brian asked us to identify some sort of brokenness in our industry and ask God what we could do about it,” Dave says. “My first response was affordable housing.” Though he was initially tempted to dismiss the idea as too obvious, through prayer and conversation with other fellows and Brian, Dave hit upon a more developed concept: Instead of just providing financial support to organizations, what if he established a nonprofit arm of his real estate business that would help first-time home buyers, especially low-income individuals and families, through a process that prepares them to become homeowners? “Through financial counseling and coaching and helping people find down payment assistance, we can change a family’s generational outlook,” Dave says, pointing to the fact that home ownership is one of the primary ways most Americans build wealth.
Dave and his director of operations (and current 5280 fellow) Ingrid Hall began creating the scaffolding for Flourish Alliance, this new nonprofit extension of his real estate group. They’re starting small: Dave points to one family – a client who came to them with very low expectations of ever owning a home – who provided proof of concept when they got the keys to their first house. What’s more, Ingrid adds, “it’s centered on meeting basic human needs with a focus on housing. This is not an instant-gratification 501c3. When you come alongside a family, it might be three to five years before they own a home.”
But, she adds, the long-term impact is so exciting that she developed her fellowship project in response to Flourish Alliance: She’s creating a guiding framework that will define the nonprofit’s philanthropic giving. “It will tell you who we give to and how and why,” she says. “We don’t want a dependency model” in which financial resources are merely a short-term, stop-gap measure, she says, and she wants donors to understand clearly the stewardship and impact possible through the nonprofit’s work.
The pair has big dreams, fueled by a vision for redeeming their industry and a sense of responsibility to steward their positions and work well. They want to be part of the solution to the problems borne of racial biases in buying and selling real estate and in the redlining that prevented minority populations from receiving home loans. Right now, they’re focused on launching Flourish Alliance and equipping first-time buyers to purchase homes. One day, Dave says, they might want to try their hand at addressing the meager supply of affordable homes by developing properties.
“The biggest thing the Fellowship did for me was help me to see how I can use my work in the lives of people who have less [than I do],” Dave says. “It gave me a desire to be a part of what God’s doing in the city; it let me see the value of work and the importance of my work being the launching point of impact [for others] as opposed to just being the funding source.”