The following is a conversation between Kris Kepler, CEO of LavaMaeX, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: LavaMaeX is a nonprofit that teaches people around the world to bring mobile showers and other essential care services to the street where their unhoused neighbors need them most. Using this Radical Hospitality approach, meeting people wherever they are with extraordinary care, LavaMaeX helps restore dignity, rekindle optimism, and fuel a sense of opportunity. And here to tell us more about what they’re doing today and what they’ll be doing tomorrow is Kris Kepler, the CEO of LavaMaeX.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Kris!
Kris: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Denver: What an inspired idea LavaMae is! How did it get started?
Kris: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, Lava Mae was founded in 2013 by Doniece Sandoval, and she witnessed her neighbors on her block in San Francisco become evicted, one by one, mainly through just gentrification. And they weren’t able to afford their rent, and she saw them become unhoused and live in their vehicles and subsequently live on the streets, and she was really compelled to do something about that, but she just didn’t quite know what that was at that time.
And then a little while later, she was walking on the streets of San Francisco and came across a woman who was crying and saying, “If I could just be clean, if I could just be clean.” And that really struck a chord within her.
And she went home and did some research and found out that there were only 16 shower stalls for 7,000 people in the city of San Francisco, and she thought… that’s when a light bulb went off, and she said, “Why don’t I bring mobile showers and toilets on wheels to the city of San Francisco?”
And she was able to secure a few Muni buses that had been retired. She retrofitted those buses, and we hit the streets in June of 2014. And once we were up and running, we expanded to Los Angeles and then Oakland… so three major cities within California.
And it was just kind of an amazing thing. Once, to your point from before, once this idea’s out there, people see it; they see the impact of it, and we started receiving requests from all around the world– about 4,500 from 39 countries saying, “Can you please bring your services to my city or to my cities?” And obviously, there was just no way we could ever meet that demand, but we just looked at that and said, “What can we do?” And that’s where we decided, in 2018, to create a do-it-yourself mobile hygiene toolkit and distribute it out to anybody that wanted to learn how to do this work. And so within the time period of about 2018 to 2019, that toolkit was downloaded around 2,500 times.
Denver: And that’s where the X comes in.
Kris: Not quite. So, what happened was, we met our impact goal of serving 30,000 Californians 16 months early, in September of 2019. And so what we said was, “What is our next move? What is the next kind of big impact that we can make in this world?” And that’s where we said, based on all of the demand for the street-based services, beginning of 2020, we rebranded to LavaMaeX, and the X stands for exponential growth and impact acceleration.
So today, what we’re doing is we’re teaching and training service providers or people to deliver mobile showers and critical services to the streets, and we also continue to offer direct service in our home cities– both mobile showers and Pop-Up Care Villages in the Bay Area.
“When you provide an environment that’s fun and festive and increases access to opportunity, and you do that together, that’s really powerful; then everybody is… like it’s a world working towards the same goal.”
Denver: We’ll get to Pop-Up, I guess, because I think when a lot of people think about LavaMaeX, they think about those showers, but you do so much more than that. Speak about what those other services are.
Kris: Yeah, sure. So, as you know, as I’ve mentioned, we are known for our mobile showers.
This is another interesting thing, as we were out there delivering mobile showers, we were hearing from our guests that they were going to so many different places to get services, whether it was food, clothing, employment, legal aid; and that sparked an idea, and we said, Why don’t we bring a bunch of service providers to the streets with us and have a big party, a big community party for our guests? Bring volunteers; get as many service providers as we can– typically it can be as many as 25 providers across all of these different service types, and bring them to the streets and work collectively to serve and expand access to opportunity for those that are on the streets.
And we play music, and there’s massages, and there’s dental services; there’s legal services. So, these Pop-Up Care Villages are really about fellowship and communion and community that’s brought together to really get to know and just share stories with one another. And because really our mission is to change the way the world sees and serves our unhoused neighbors, and when you provide an environment that’s fun and festive and increases access to opportunity, and you do that together, that’s really powerful; then everybody is, like I said, we’re all working towards the same goal.
Denver: Now, how do you create a schedule around this? In other words, where do you go, and how often do you go there? Is this a weekly or a monthly or biweekly? How does that all fit together so the unhoused guests will have an idea of when you’re going to be coming around?
Kris: Yeah, so typically, we create a schedule at the beginning of the year. We have certain locations that we go to. So, one of the locations we’ve had a Pop-Up for several years, at the main public library in San Francisco. We’ve also held Pop-Up Care Villages at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland.
So, a lot of it is scheduling it out, but we don’t typically… we’ll do between 6 and 8 a year, and they’re pretty big. They have to do all the planning and the volunteers and making sure that, like you said, you do outreach, and the guests know where you are. So, it does take a good amount of planning to make sure that all the pieces come together.
And when you have 25 service providers and you have tents, and you have all those logistics, and getting everything set up, it takes a while to put it together. That being said, many people could go out there, find a church parking lot or just a place where you can be and just gather 5 or 6 service providers and do it yourself without it having to be at the scale that we normally do it at. So, it doesn’t have to be a huge production.
I would also say… the other piece of it too, is when you’re running your mobile showers, you can have partners alongside you during shower service. So, we, for example, have worked for a long time with UCSF street nursing team that would join us every week at shower service and provide medical care… or just other haircuts… so you can just have those services there that are more consistent on an ongoing basis to increase the access to opportunity because the showers are really a gateway for other services.
“When you restore that self-worth, and you have advocates, and you have people there, it’s incredibly impactful. And, it’s the little moments.”
Denver: Yeah, I bet that’s the case. And those other services, it’s just not those services themselves, but it’s the way you deliver those services, which takes us to Radical Hospitality. Explain that concept to us.
Kris: Radical hospitality is really about creating relationships and community and restoring the dignity for your guests, and I think what’s really important to know is that people who are living on the streets, they are invisible. So, people don’t even see them when they walk by; they’re not looked at; they’re not talked to. They receive an incredible amount of hate and judgment. And when you have a service or a place that someone who’s incredibly traumatized, who does not even remember their self-worth, who has been stripped of their dignity… when you have a safe, loving, community-oriented place to walk to, and to talk to not only other guests, but to our staff who go above and beyond to help and to listen and to acknowledge, those are the things we take for granted.
Many of us do have some sort of a village. And when you don’t have that, and you literally feel like you’re the only person on this earth, and no one is there to help you… when you restore that self-worth, and you have advocates, and you have people there, it’s incredibly impactful. And, it’s the little moments.
And then, it also is access to a shower. When you’re clean, you feel better. You can go out; you can interview for a job; you feel human again, just like us, just what I always say…. When you go in the shower in the morning, and then you come out, you feel like, okay, you mentally feel better, physically, and you can start your day. And if you don’t have a shower for days on end, you don’t feel like a human being.
But a lot of it, it’s the relationship; it’s not a transaction. We don’t get you in, get you out. And we give you a hygiene kit, a nice towel. You can take a 15-minute shower. We know your name, especially if we see them often; we ask them how they are.
Denver: That’s nice, they’re not a demographic, they’re a person.
Kris: No. They’re a person. And I think that’s the thing; they are human beings just like us, and they are amazing, lovely people that just need the support and the help; and the more you’re consistent and you create that relationship, that’s beautiful, and that’s why the majority of the team does this work– to help.
Denver: When the pandemic hit, I guess it’s two years now, you look at your direct-service program and decided that you might have to pivot. So, take us back to that time, March of 2020, and what you were thinking, and what you ultimately did.
Kris: That’s a really great question. So, in March of 2020, we were still doing direct-service, so we were on the streets one day a week in each of the home cities, and we were running Pop-Up Care Villages. As you know with the pandemic, everything was up in the air. There were stay-at-home orders, all of that. So, we looked at our direct-service work and said, We have to suspend our mobile showers because we have to obtain the PPE gear; we have to update our cleaning protocols. What is the risk? And with our Pop-Up Care Villages, you can get anywhere upwards of 500 people in one area, so we had to suspend that too. And so, the question I asked the team was, “What do we want to do now?” And we knew, and I knew, that we did not want to leave our guests behind.
So, instead of just saying, okay, we’re just going to go back and revise all of this and put a hold on pop-ups for as long as it takes, we decided to look at the resources that we had. And we have a lot of hygiene kit items in our warehouse. And so what we did is we mobilized, and we started creating kits, which we handed out at shower service anyways, but we added more COVID-specific items such as hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, body wipes… you name it, and we sourced new items to put in there. And then we went out to encampments.
So, we went out on foot to encampments and delivered those kits along with water, because probably something that people don’t really know or think about is like all the parks were closed; the Starbucks were closed, the infrastructure that people typically use for things, again, that we take for granted, like water or using even like a bathroom at a Starbucks… or sitting in and learning the news, like looking at a TV, was gone.
So, we went into encampments, and we delivered kits. We also brought water. We brought food and snacks. We brought clothes, and we just went on foot and delivered that. And the biggest thing that we found is that, it’s just so isolating and it’s so lonely, and they really thought that they had been forgotten because everything shut down, and they didn’t understand why. They just knew that no one was on the streets anymore; they had no idea. So, a lot of it was us providing that love and saying: We’re here for you. What do you need? But then also giving them information… what resources locally are still open that you can go to. So, that was the first thing that we did and we delivered, I think, I might’ve mentioned this, about 8,500 kits throughout the three cities.
And the second thing that we looked at was, at that point, washing your hands and staying clean and sanitizing and all of that was so important. And we found that our guests, really, they needed a way to wash their hands. And at that time, you couldn’t even order a high-capacity handwashing station on Amazon because they were all on backorder. And if you wanted to rent one, let’s say from United Rentals, it was like $3,000 a month.
So, we came back and said, Why don’t we create a hand washing station, a do-it-yourself handwashing station, where you can assemble it yourself, create a toolkit, and a video, and a supply list, and that’s what we did, and we deployed them locally. And then we also had the toolkit out there for other people to use to figure it out themselves, but then they could also call us and ask us questions. So we did those two things to stay connected and in service of our guests. And then now, we’re subsequently up and running again with our mobile showers and our Pop-Up Care Villages.
Denver: Probably when you’re in the middle of this, you’re just doing things… you’re not even thinking about them. You’re just functioning and acting, but with the benefit of hindsight, what have you learned about innovating through a crisis?
Kris: Yeah, part of it is don’t be paralyzed by it. Look at where there’s opportunity to serve in different ways and pivot: really figure out how to stay connected and figure out what people need and how you can plug into that. I think, with this crisis, we had this north star of, “Okay, direct-service, we’re going to do these things in 2020.”
And by the way, we were still advising and teaching people during that time. And so, it’s just being really open and also looking at the partners that you have and saying, How can we serve together in a different way? And a really great example of that is, I mentioned UCSF street nurses before; they ended up going out with us to these encampments, and together, we gave out hygiene kits, and they gave a lot of like wound care and medical help for people.
Right now, it’s a fabulous opportunity. It’s disruption. So how are you going to pivot alongside that, but still look at that north star, where you want to be and just stay connected with those on the streets and who you’re serving and how you can just be really nimble and agile with what you’re seeing? It’s about staying and really keeping your ear to the ground.
Denver: Let’s circle back a little bit to the scaling and how you went open source. In so many aspects of that, I’m so curious about. Number one, how does a direct-service organization pivot to become a consultancy?
Kris: That’s a great question. I’m so glad you’re asking this. Ironically, my background is actually in consulting. I previously did a lot of research strategy and service design, interaction design. And when we pivoted, we took the direct-service staff…. and, understand that the direct-service staff had three to four years’ experience on the street.
But yes, that’s mainly what they did is direct-service. And what we did is we came together and said, Let’s build out this curriculum because I think it’s a very natural thing when you love what you do, when you do it for so long, to want to teach and train it. Now, it’s a progression. I mean, in the beginning, we said, here’s the stages; here’s the phases; we have this toolkit. But how do we want to advise people across these stages? What new tools do we want to create? How does this process work? And that’s something that we have tested and tried and formalized since the beginning of 2020.
So, it’s been just now over two years, and a lot of it is just working through it and collaborating together as a team because, as I’ve mentioned, when we launched the 2018 for-mobile hygiene, we were advising informally people anyways. So it was really about: the people would come… service providers would come on site; they would see what we do, but it was really about taking that construct and breaking it down into: What are the interactions with service providers, and how are we really getting them from idea to launch?
So, that’s been a journey and a really fun one for us to explore with the team who are experts in this work.
Denver: It’s interesting. I found for myself, I did a little bit of teaching, philanthropy at NYU, and I did a lot of things intuitively. And when I had to teach the class, I didn’t know why I did the things that I did.
And you have to say, “I can do them, I know it, but I can’t explain it.” And, although when you’re doing something like this, it’s like the policies and the procedures and getting it down in writing becomes so important. It makes you write a narrative and really think through it in much more detail than what your hands just did.
Kris: Yeah. And that’s been, like I said, that’s been an evolution because everybody on the team has different ways of teaching or training and thoughts, and that’s great, that diversity and approach and in thought. And how do you standardize that is what we’ve done a lot of work on, and it’s been a really fun process for us to explore. And it’s been really fun to serve service providers that are doing this work and to hear their stories and who they want to serve in their community and why, and their challenges. So, we’re able to serve the guests through direct-service in our cities, but we’re also serving our service providers and really understanding: How can we be more effective? But not just that, but how can we really help them, and what’s going to move the needle?
Denver: And I think it’s great that you continue with your direct-service in Oakland, and LA, and San Francisco because you would probably lose touch, I’m just thinking, very quickly unless you are out there, because things change, and you become too far removed. So just having aside from all the good that it does, it keeps you much more in touch with the ground and what’s happening today.
Kris: And it’s not only that, for us, it’s also a training ground for our service providers too. But then also when we want to test and try out new ideas or products or things, we can go to our guests and talk to them. But absolutely, that was one commitment that we had said: that I personally don’t believe you can teach and train our consultants something that you don’t stay in touch with; it just doesn’t make sense.
Denver: And you support these folks through a couple of different ways, one would be Lava Mae Connect?
Kris: Yes. So, that is our community. We launched a community platform and that’s where, as we know, the best solutions come from the communities themselves, and the goal was so we can create a place for people to convene. We can do trainings on Connect; we have discussion boards, things like that. But we really want people to connect and innovate with one another and make those connections. So, if there’s three providers in the city of Austin that can get together and share resources, share innovations… that’s really creating a global community, both hyper-locally and making those connections, also as an entire movement, because this work is really hard, and you need the cheerleaders and you got to say, “Okay, you can do this. I know this is tough, but we’ve done it. Here’s some of the pitfalls.” And you need that support system that’s out there.
And so the community platform is something that’s very important to us to create as a hub for people to come together, and where, like I said, we do some online trainings. We also, though, have our one-to-one mentorship program where you can reach out to us, and we’ll talk to you, and then based on where you’re at and what your goals are and all of that, we’ll assign you to a program consultant that will walk you through the different phases and look at where you are in the phase and how we can…
“Our vision is a world where hygiene is a human right. And the more hygiene we can get on the street… and services, the better.”
Denver: That leads very nicely into my next question in terms of where you’re at, and that would be your five-year strategic plan. Tell us about that and how is that coming?
Kris: Our five-year goal is to create a network of communities that launch or sustain programs modeled after ours… so that’s mobile showers, Pop-Up Care Villages, and even handwashing stations to serve a hundred thousand people around the world by 2024.
And today, we have 26 providers in the U.S. that have launched…. 29, including global, so three international that have served 14,000 people over 54,000 showers. Our vision is a world where hygiene is a human right. And the more hygiene we can get on the street… and services, the better, including the pop-up services from lots of different organizations and communities around the world, mobilized to provide Radical Hospitality and really do that in a loving way, just restoring dignity for people.
So, this year we’re very much focused on obviously continuing that goal, but it is also…we’re really looking at people that want to fund us to help scale this work because not only do we offer the teaching and training, we also help fund.
So when you can fund grassroots communities, micro seed funding, like $20,000 a year, and you do that for three years, that has exponential impact, especially for these organizations that don’t have the contacts with these larger foundations or are just really struggling to get their programs off the ground. So when you can pair up the two, the funding and the training, that’s what gets you to the streets faster. And I think that’s something pretty unique that we do because we are in such close touch with these service providers, we know what they need… and to be able to offer it, that is really important.
Denver: How is the fundraising, and what was the impact of the pandemic on your ability to raise money?
Kris: We had a really great year last year. We always want to raise more money. I’m seeing from funders, we had more individual donors that gave to us last year. I think unrestricted funding is so important, especially as things go up and down. I think that’s a gimme, but also multi-year funding. What I tell funders is: given our large goal and really getting a hundred thousand people served through mobile showers and other essential care services, if you can give us multi-year funding, then I can fund service providers each year, and that means that will enable them to scale. So maybe they start with one location because that’s all they have the funding for, but then they scale up to five locations in their area, and then even expand out to other cities. And we’re really seeing that from service providers that have been up and running for two years or so. So, I think the multi-year funding is really critical to be able to have that safety net and be able to plan long-term.
Denver: These direct-service providers, they are social entrepreneurs, that’s what they’re good at, and when they can focus on doing that instead of having to chase the next dollar down and how they’re going to keep the doors open the next day, it makes all the difference in the world. It really does.
And you have some nice corporate partners. One of those would be Unilever.
Kris: The Right To Shower, yes, an amazing corporate partner of ours. We are going on year four with them. They were the first partner. A) We’re very mission-aligned because profit from their cleansers and bars goes towards helping the unhoused; we’re funded through them. And so, part of the funding that they give us goes out to these service providers to get them up and running so that, again, there can be more hygiene and showers on the streets… so showers for all.
They’ve been an amazing partner because they were the first partner that we could really test and try this funding model with, and so we worked closely with them to figure out what markets we wanted to fund, meaning, the cities that they want to focus on. And what’s the right mix of people or organizations that are just launching versus those that want to sustain or to scale? And they were really our first kind of pilot program for this that really gave us the legs to say: This works! And it’s just been a great partnership and working with them together on campaigns and things like that.
“I consider myself a servant leader, and a lot of it for me is really leaning into the team model and partnering with the team, and really just being inclusionary with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and doing a lot of work sessions.”
Denver: This is not an easy time to be in charge, Kris, and as a matter of fact, I think, you stepped into this role just around the time the pandemic was breaking.
Kris: I did.
Denver: How do you think the nature of leading a major non-profit national organization is changing, and what do you think you’ve done to adapt during this period?
Kris: That’s such a great question. For me, I’m a very collaborative leader. That’s how I see myself. I consider myself a servant leader, and a lot of it for me is really leaning into the team model and partnering with the team, and really just being inclusionary with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and doing a lot of work sessions.
I don’t have to be the only person…or “ We have to do it in this way.” and I think that’s really important, especially when you have a veteran team that is invested in this work and has been doing this work for several years. So, I think that the collaboration and the partnership is really important, especially with the team and with others around you to figure out how you can collaborate in new ways.
I also think, for me, just really being flexible and fluid in my approach has been important. So, you might’ve had these plans and you’re going somewhere, but how you get there, you just have to look at the trends, look at what’s happening on the streets, look at your mission and your vision and say, “You know what? Maybe we want to go a different path for a little bit and see where that takes us.”
And so just being open to that and taking the time to kind of think through that, I think, is important. But also, it’s just staying really creative and innovative and agile. As I said, we stayed connected, and so a lot of the hygiene kit drops, the handwashing stations, especially the handwashing stations, that was something that we saw that was a need, and we stepped in to fulfill that.
So I think part of it is just being creative and agile, and just don’t spend too much time planning things to the T, because things are changing all the time. So, that’s important, to take in those inputs, but also make sure you don’t throw the team in too many directions where it feels confusing, and that’s really where the rub comes in– to look at that and be intentional and strategic about it based on your impact goal and your mission and your vision.
Denver: Yeah, it sounds as if you almost had some short-term goals based on what was needed, and the team got focused on those, and you did them, and then you moved on to something else. And that is actually, I think, such a healthy way to look at it during those times.
How has the focus on social justice and racial equity in DEI impacted the way the organization conducts itself and conducts the work that it does?
Kris: Yeah, so we have done a lot of DEI work internally; a lot of it too is just looking at how we talk to each other, how we treat our guests, and how to navigate that.
I also think, part of it too is really understanding when we’re funding these grassroots communities, like people of color and people that may not have as much opportunity as others, and taking that into account. We’ve done a lot of work internally on what this means for us. I think it’s still an ongoing process and something that we’re always continuing to assess and to check, but it’s a process that we started last year that keeps evolving for us.
Denver: And let me close with this, Kris, what do you think these last two years that we’ve all been through, what is that impact going to be on the philanthropic, the nonprofit sector, over the course of the next decade? Because things are never going to be the same again, we do know that.
Kris: Oh my goodness. That’s a huge question.
I think it’s really looking at: What are the current issues that are happening today that are top-of-mind for people? And how is money being funded that aligns with what people care about… like your point, whether it’s racial, equality and equity, climate change, the unhoused, and services for the unhoused?
I think part of it too is really asking who you’re funding, what they need, and collaborating with us more. I think that’s really critical because we’re constantly on the ground pivoting and doing different things depending on what the need is…of course as it relates to the mission and the vision, but being really flexible and really understanding how, like the help that we need, and just really looking at our strategy, and why that’s important and why they should continue to care as well.
Denver: For listeners who want to learn more about LavaMaeX or financially support this work, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find there.
Kris: Yes, you can go to our website, lavamaex.org. You can find various ways to help. You can volunteer at our direct service locally. You can donate if you’d like, which enables us to train and scale and reach more service providers. You can also find a list of our map of service providers around the world that are currently up and running if you want to volunteer at those organizations. And then also you can sign up for LavaMaeX Connect platform if you’d like, or reach out to us on our Contact Us form for the one-on-one mentorship program, or teaching and training program if you are interested in starting your own mobile shower or Pop-Up Care Village or hand washing stations.
Denver: Quite a remarkable enterprise. Thanks so much for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Kris: Thank you.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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