Eden Updates, Policy Updates

Q&A with Rudolph (Rudy) Johnson, New Chairman of the Board, Eden Housing

February 5, 2024

Rudolph (Rudy) A. Johnson, III, president and CEO of the Neighborhood House Association (NHA), has recently been named chairman of the Eden Housing board. He first joined the board in 2018 and was named vice chair in 2020.

An author, active board member and business executive, he has dedicated his career to serving the greater San Diego region, which he calls home.

As a versatile and nimble leader, he has spearheaded NHA for the past 18 years, transforming it into the largest nonprofit social service agency in San Diego County and one of the nation’s most innovative and recognized human services agencies. With 28 programs, 800+ employees, a $119 million budget and an economic impact of over $200 million to the local area, NHA has grown to be a major economic engine under Johnson’s leadership, while serving thousands of families annually.

Previously, he was general manager at the San Diego Convention Center, directing operations and managing a $200 million renovation that doubled the size of its exhibition hall. The center consistently ranks among the top three convention centers in the world.

Johnson shares his business acumen far and wide. He co-authored an Aspatore Inside the Minds series book titled Strategies for Building an Agile Organization: Leading CEOs on Establishing Collaboration, Engaging Innovation, and Maximizing Value and has been a guest lecturer for the Springfield College School of Human Services and the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities’ Executive Leadership Institute.

Throughout his career, he has received numerous awards and recognitions, including being selected as one of Diversity MBA Magazine’s Top 100 Emerging Leaders; receiving the Excellence in Achievement Award in Business from the Texas Southern University National Alumni Association; earning the USS Midway Museum’s 2020 Bridge Builder Award; and being recognized by former First Lady Michelle Obama for establishing NHA’s Nutrition Services program for children.

We had the privilege of sitting down with Johnson to discuss his career path, recent successes and his vision for making a difference in human services and affordable housing in San Diego and beyond.

What led you to initially get involved in the affordable housing sector and join Eden Housing’s board?

Several years ago, Eden Housing approached the Neighborhood House Association regarding a potential partnership in the San Diego area. We were deeply interested because although we have provided wraparound services for the past 110 years – from substance abuse to mental health, early childhood education and nutrition – the piece we didn’t have in our portfolio was developing the infrastructure and housing that our clients would need to fully transition into economic prosperity. Our strength is supporting the entire family as they’re moving through our continuum of care, but I also wanted to understand affordable housing from the inside out – how you develop property and sustain families.

As I talked with Linda (Mandolini), I realized it would be a natural fit to join the board. I’ve learned a lot about the business side of affordable housing, including all the pieces that need to come together in a cost-effective way for a project to come to fruition, and understanding those nuances is helpful both for our organization and for Eden, which now has a presence in San Diego.

What is your vision for Eden Housing and what are you hoping to achieve during your tenure as chairman?

Eden Housing has an impressive track record of strong leadership and partnership development. Linda is an outstanding CEO, who has always had an innovative and ambitious vision for the organization, augmented by a talented team. My goal is to work with the board to support her and help the organization review and implement the strategic plan to make sure we’re hitting our milestones along the way, and I look forward to adding my insight and expertise during my tenure.

Diversity and inclusion is one of the pillars that is near and dear to me, and I really look forward to making a direct impact in this particular cornerstone.

You’ve had a prolific career at NHA and the San Diego Convention Center. What are you proud of, and how would you characterize your “secret sauce” that has helped you lead these organizations?

I come from a very humble beginning and have worked hard throughout my life to grow professionally, alongside my work supporting the organizations and the people we serve. In fact, as a child, I benefited from NHA’s Head Start program, and now it’s a true honor to have led this same organization for 18 years.

While there is always more to do, I take great pride in our nonprofit’s ability to retain 95% of our workforce during the pandemic. Additionally, we’ve successfully transitioned from “heat and serve,” products in our central kitchen to providing organic and home-cooked meals, serving 6,000 individuals a day out of our central kitchen. It’s particularly rewarding to be changing the taste buds of very young children.

Regarding my leadership style, regardless of where I’m working, I have one “recipe” in my pocket that I believe has helped me and the organizations succeed. There are five components to this:

  • Understanding the organization from the inside out: Rather than just observing, you have to learn its depth and breadth to understand all the key components so when you become the leader and visionary, you can zero in and give instructions that are in line with how this organization is structured operationally.
  • Being intimately familiar with the budget: That same approach has to be applied to understanding budget numbers. As a leader you should know as much information as the CFO about the operation.
  • Developing the board: A board that is diverse in its thinking, discipline, experiences and appearance can make better-quality decisions.
  • Building your leadership team: Use your network and relationships to build a foundation; for example, when I first arrived at NHA 18 years ago, I brought over five executives from the convention center, then over time, we added to that talent base to really round out what has become a stellar executive leadership team. As you inevitably lose people through attrition or to retirement, draw on those relationships you’ve nurtured throughout your professional life.
  • Raising the brand of the organization externally: This will translate to improved fundraising opportunities, talent recruitment and other resources that are vital to the organization’s growth.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see for nonprofit organizations striving to support their communities in 2024?

As we move into the post-pandemic environment, CEOs and executive directors continue to grapple with a number of challenges related to talent and programs. We’ve seen a talent drain as people move out of state or decide not to rejoin the workforce or go back to the office, as we work on creating the right mix of office and home time. It can be a particular challenge for nonprofits since even once we recruit the right talent, we know that other organizations are looking at the same potential candidates in this competitive climate.

Then, because of the safety needs surrounding COVID, our numbers can be elusive since people aren’t moving as much or they may be participating in fewer programs, opting to homeschool for example. That can lead to vacancies in some programs that are difficult to predict and financially account for. These components impact the budget since revenue projections may be under, yet payroll is a fixed cost. These are the things we manage on a daily basis, just like any big business.

In terms of opportunities, I see an even greater need to serve individuals here in San Diego. The pandemic created more hardship across the board, leaving many people in transition, and with families re-entering the workforce, early childhood education is critical.

We also see that substance abuse and addiction is up, along with a general increase in mental health conditions. Given the breadth of our services, we are really well positioned to make a big impact in these people’s lives. And for organizations like Eden, homelessness is a huge issue both here in San Diego and other parts of the state. There’s a lot of work to be done there, and I look forward to helping make a difference.