Checked Boxes and Slippery Slopes…

Posted: 29 January 2011 in Uncategorized

I am interested in how institutions–especially “mission-focused” non-profits–are born, evolve, devolve and either die (rarely) or hang on, making their own survival their end while completely losing sight of the end (the mission) for which they were established in the first place. I am interested because I have had a front-row seat to the devolution and “hanging on” of a number of non-profits over the years. It is not a pretty thing to watch but the whole process gets pretty predictable.

In my town there is a pretty cool institution–cool both because of what it does and because it has tried hard NOT to act like other institutions. And yet, now in its fourth year I can see the same old story repeating itself. Well maybe. I hope not. But I am not really hopeful.

This organization brings various faith groups together (church and temple–no mosques yet) to provide shelter to homeless folks in the winter (rainy) season. It provides a framework–scheduling, training, guidelines– and the faith groups provide everything else–buildings, food, and, most importantly, volunteers to staff the actual night-to-night running of the thing. At least that is how it started out. Now it has always been the case that the organization provided some people to guide the process, make decisions and set general policies and rules. All important jobs. All critical jobs. It also provides interns from the local university to create continuity from day to day.

But the actual engagement with homeless folks–the real “raison-d’etre” of the organization was always in the hands of the faith groups. They were the ones that did the hard work of being with people.

Now, it seems that things are starting to change. I am not part of any of the faith groups that do the mission critical work but these past two years I have volunteered to fill in, in case of emergency, to stay overnight and make sure everything was okay at the site. I am committed to this work and to this model so filling in a couple of times if a volunteer gets sick or there is a mix-up with the volunteer registration system is no big deal for me. I know lots of the guests and like them a great deal.

But a funny thing has happened. I started getting calls to see if I could fill in–not because there was an actual “emergency” but because the faith group in question did not get enough people to sign up for the “graveyard” shift. It happened the first time in one of the smaller groups and so I thought “No problem. They have a small congregation. Lots of old people. It is around the holidays…” But then I got called again (bigger church, no holiday) and again and again. The last bothered me the most. Biggest church in town; wealthiest too. They have three “services” (interesting word) on Sunday morning and one Sunday night. They must pull in over 600 on a typical Sunday. Their budget is in the hundreds of thousands per year. And they can’t get two volunteers, per night? I was called not once, but twice to this church and it turns out they only covered about half their night shifts.

What is going on here? Well, first off we have an institution in full “evolution”. From organizing service to actually providing service is a big evolutionary step. And make no mistake–even though I am not paid (nor are the other volunteers who have spent the night with me), I DO represent the institution. The institution as in “Oh, no problem, if the churches can’t do it the ‘institution’ will step up and take care of it.” The first night there was a volunteer from the faith group with me. The second night the same thing. These last two? Nothing. Neither volunteer from the church at all.

So, again, what is going on here? The institutional evolution is no surprise. People who work in non-profits are the “true believers.” We are the hard core. We really want people to get shelter and are glad to help make it happen. That is our gift. But, as I have come to see, every gift has a dark side and our dark side is that we will “take over” if the people who should be stepping up don’t. In that way we are enablers of some pretty bad behavior. I don’t like it but I am co-dependent. What we should do is simply say “You need to get X volunteers from your church each night if you are going to commit to this. If you don’t, we close down the shelter. Period.” We could say that but we won’t. After all, our names, our reputations are kind of associated with this institution. We have trapped ourselves. We get on that slippery slope and we can’t stop. I often think we are as “addicted” as some of the guests who come our way. Their addictions destroy them. Ours garner us “volunteer of the year” awards.

The faith groups are the real “winners” here. They get to feel pretty good about themselves. They get to check that “do good to the poor” box on their “Duty to God” list and it really does not cost a whole lot. You might say that that is unfair. After all, they open their buildings and they usually get people to make a meal… I don’t think I am being unfair. We can find other buildings. Hell, if we have to we can sleep people in the train station, the gym at the high school or somewhere on the campus of our university. And trust me on this–the first time a homeless person dies of “exposure” in this town people will move mountains to find a place for homeless people to sleep. What we need–and I think what the faith groups really CAN offer is a relationship, an ear, a conversation. They can offer a place where the dehumanizing forces that drive people to the streets and keep them there can be challenged (if not overcome) by a kind word, an empathetic ear, a new perspective gained after listening to the stories of the poor and a friendship started. We don’t need your building. We need you.

Our slippery slope will bring us to a place in which our institution will be the “homeless ministry” that cares for the needs of the outcast while the faith groups happily check the need to do something about homelessness off their list.

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