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Service providers are on the front lines of our nation's struggles with the effects of poverty and inequity. While the sector has always focused on helping people, service organizations underwent significant changes in the 1980s when government began to contract out service delivery on an unprecedented scale. Over time, organizations absorbed the service functions that were largely abandoned by the state -- meeting people's basic needs for food, shelter, health, and safety. Facing increased competition for government contracts, increasing demands for services and tougher measures of accountability, many of these organizations adapted to the trends by becoming business savvy, professionalizing staff, and looking for models of efficiency. Other organizations did not participate in the new government contracting system and instead focused on organizing and advocating for changes in the government's social welfare policies. These major shifts in the sector are often described as creating a divide between "providing services to oppressed populations or organizing them to challenge power structures." But in practice, service groups fall at various places along a spectrum, and increasingly service organizations are integrating their mission to meet individual needs with their aspiration to address the larger systems, policies, and structures that contribute to the problems people face.This report examines how two organizations developed and executed strategies that advanced their commitment to bridge the service-organizing "divide" by thinking beyond individual needs to address problems at a community level.
Leadership is closely tied to notions of confidence, agency and authority in our culture. Too often, structural inequities restrict the opportunities for people to develop those self-perceptions and exercise leadership, particularly for people who find themselves in need of formal supportive services. Even within the nonprofit sector, issues of power imbalances that are embedded throughout society can be replicated within organizations and provider/client relationships. For instance, due to the lack of representation of voices from communities most likely to receive services, the systems and structures that govern public benefits and services often demand compliance to rules that recipients have not had a role in shaping. Additionally, the professionalization of service delivery -- which has been the subject of long-standing debate in social work theory -- can over-emphasize the power of the "expert" deliverers of services and reduce constituent's voice in advocating for themselves and their communities. In spite of these broader societal barriers and dynamics in the sector, organizations find a wide range of ways to develop clients as leaders, strengthen their self-image, and build their capacity to act on their own behalf.This report includes two case studies of leadership development efforts by nonprofit organizations.
People working in service agencies constantly ask questions. During an intake process, questions may assess need and eligibility; in a counseling session, questions may focus on strengths and diagnoses; in an advocacy or organizing setting, the questions can be about root causes, power and strategy. While some questions can seem intrusive and coercive, other questions can "open the door to dialogue and discovery" and invite "creativity and breakthrough thinking." Questions can illuminate new opportunities and build a stronger foundation for relationships. Tapping into the power of questions to generate new possibilities and ignite change is an important tool for service providers working to help people and communities. This report profiles two organizations that began asking new and powerful questions in their work with clients and volunteers.
The concepts of community and social capital are connected to feelings of belonging, interdependence, trust and reciprocity; and both ideas have been integrated into frameworks for helping marginalized people and addressing social problems. Sense of community is linked to psychological well-being and is one of the most commonly researched ideas in the field of community psychology. Social capital gained popularity over the last two decades, thanks in part to Robert Putnam's best-selling book "Bowling Alone", and to foundations promoting the concept as "useful to help families escape poverty and build healthy communities."The popular focus on community and social capital may draw criticism for being romantic or naïve as a social change strategy, but in direct service delivery, both concepts point to the hard-to-quantify benefits that social service agencies provide. In neighborhoods that have been marginalized by economic and racial inequities, service providers often see specific problems of homelessness, hunger, unemployment, addiction, etc., linked to more generalized social distance and alienation. Therefore, when nonprofit organizations take a holistic approach to helping people, they should not overlook the importance of building a sense of community within their organization and among clients.This report includes two case studies of community building efforts by nonprofit organizations in Detroit and New York City.
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