3 Steps to Launching Initiatives

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by Katie Delp

In 2015, FCS launched Carver Neighborhood Market, a “right-sized” retail grocery store in our target community of Historic South Atlanta. It was a neighborhood that had been routinely overlooked by traditional grocery chains and seen as too challenging to make a profit.

This scenario happens over and over again in distressed communities. Needed services and goods are not available to a population that often already has transportation limitations. It’s the perfect opportunity for innovative nonprofits to step into the gap and facilitate access for residents. Flourishing communities need groceries, and it was an industry we decided to learn and implement in our neighborhood.

The first year and a half has been a wild ride and has surprised us with small and large successes. Carver Market has also received a lot of attention - locally and even nationally. This exposure has brought others to FCS, asking how they, too, can start a market.

While we are thrilled to see more people invested in the idea of right-sized retail and urban markets, we also recognize that Carver Market did not emerge as an isolated experiment. It was a needed program implemented as part of a broader, long-term strategic community development effort.

Much of the success of Carver Market can be attributed to activities that happened before the first gallon of milk was ever scanned. For others considering how to launch a grocery store, or really any innovative solution to urban challenges, I encourage you to consider these steps as laying the groundwork for the specifics of your amazing projects.

#1 - Consider your model

If your organization has been involved in the community, but all your programs rely on a giveaway model, these areas may be a good place to start. After years of handing out backpacks, canned goods, and used clothes, it may be startling for the neighborhood if you suddenly open a store where everything is priced at or around market norms.

First, consider how you might shift your current programs to include more opportunities for mutual exchange. You might launch a Christmas Store with dignity or facilitate a food co-op instead of a food pantry.

This transition will also help your creative juices to start flowing around larger initiatives - like a grocery store - that will move fully away from donated items and start working with smaller distributors and local farmers.

#2 -  Build Trust

FCS had been working in South Atlanta for 15 years before opening Carver Market. A significant number of our staff team have lived in the community for many years as well. Neighbors recognized FCS and knew the people behind Carver Market. Our lived experience in the neighborhood all these years had been building trust and got more community buy-in from the start.

Our coffee shop, Community Grounds, had been in the neighborhood - and sharing space with where the grocery would eventually be - for years. It was a known gathering spot in the community, and neighbors were comfortable in the space This relational equity and trust invited neighbors to start asking us, “What about a grocery store?”

#3 -  Recognize why others aren’t doing it

There’s a reason traditional grocers by-pass our community. And one glaring issue was South Atlanta’s lack of density. Nine years ago, almost 30% of our neighborhood was vacant. We also have more single-family homes, which house less people than row houses or apartment complexes.

To launch a project without acknowledging and preparing for the real challenges would make it difficult to sustain. The momentum behind Carver Market has also been fueled by the housing work we’d been doing for years with Charis Community Housing. As we rehabbed houses and recruited new neighbors, we were also building a customer base for the grocery.

We need creative solutions to real problems plaguing struggling communities. But these efforts will be strongest when bolstered by an integrated, strategic plan that moves communities away from entitlement programs, builds trusts, and addresses challenges head-on with thoughtful planning and creativity.

If you’re interested in learning more about our program models and their implementation, consider joining us at an upcoming Open House.


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Calling vs Organization: Is It A Fight?

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by Jim Wehner

My mind is turning this morning. Not about mission or program. I am thinking about funding. Third quarter for FCS is always our most difficult quarter from a financial perspective. We have years of data showing an annual progression I have been unable to change. The summer months represent the low point of our year in terms of donations. So we enter the fourth quarter with cash flow levels that sometimes require difficult decisions in regard to staff and programs. These decisions are often the low point of leadership.

Organizational survival. It is the bane of the nonprofit leader’s existence. I do not know a strong nonprofit leader that doesn’t feel similar tensions on a recurring basis. An organization demands a certain amount of administration that too often feels like it takes away from the very calling we started out pursuing. However, I am beginning to see that this tension is a necessary part of our  development as leaders.

You do not have to read too far into the Scriptures to see a strong example emerge. In Genesis 12, we see the story of Abram’s calling. God told him, “Go to the land I will show you.” The rest of Abram’s story - all the highs and lows - flow from his first steps to obey that calling. After Abram, we see literally dozens of examples of individuals doing the same thing. Following a vague, but persistent, sense of calling into a new and textured future that connects them to something bigger and greater than themselves.

I wonder if Abram would have taken the first step of obedience if he understood what was coming? Another way of saying this is that without the sense of calling, he never would have endured the trials and distractions to be able to see the fulfillment of that calling. The journey is just too difficult.

In my role at FCS, I see this tension almost daily, whether I am interacting with someone on my team or a leader from another organization. Somehow, when we start on the journey, we do not realize the mission we are pursuing will have its share of challenges and distractions. These activities of organizational survival - accounting, marketing, HR, supporting staff, board development, fundraising, and on and on - are all crucial to following our calling well. But these tasks often just do not feel spiritual.

Might the best way to deal with this reality be to lean into it rather than avoid or lament the tension it causes? One of the ways we at FCS live into this tension is by connecting to our calling as neighbors, rather than only community development professionals. Years ago, our founder Bob Lupton made this decision to move into the neighborhood he was serving. It was his way of stepping more closely into the Great Command: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. This single decision has remained core to our DNA as an organization.

When I leave the office to head home, I travel eight blocks into the center of the neighborhood FCS serves. Our Executive Director and Director of Economic Development have lived in the neighborhood for years. Other staff have moved into the neighborhood as they’ve come to work at FCS, with some lived here already when they joined the team.

Being a neighbor and loving my neighbor as myself is at the very core of my faith. Living in South Atlanta changes the ways our staff work out our personal sense of calling to empower neighborhoods to thrive. We live there. And it is my role as a neighbor that keeps me grounded when the day-to-day challenges of organizational survival cause me to question my role as a nonprofit leader.

I was speaking with a staff member about a school board function she had attended. She commented that she did not know whether she was invited because of her leadership on a local charter school board, her position at FCS, or her role as a parent of two children in the neighborhood. We agreed it was her community and parenthood roles that drove her passion to attend, while her organizational connections gave her opportunity to leverage influence in the meeting on behalf of her neighbors. Our sense of call and our organizational roles can integrate in powerful ways. And in the end, we may not always be sure what brought us to the table.

Following my individual call through neighboring sustains me in the moments of nonprofit leadership that feel more focused on organizational survival. I know the work of FCS is having significant impact, and it thrives because of time and energy investment in the details of running an organization. But being a neighbor is not an add-on to my work, it is core to my sense of calling. These two key components work together to create significant impact.

If you lead a nonprofit, what things do you do to stay grounded in your sense of calling when the everyday details seem to pull you a different way?


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5 Ways to Build Community in the Fall

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As the air cools off, the leaves change color, and all things pumpkin spice fill our cups, we are reminded of the new season around us. Fall is the perfect time to head outside and connect with neighbors before winter’s chill, and it’s also great for inviting people inside to gather around the table. Here are 5 creative ways to keep building community this fall.

1) Plan a Progressive Dinner

Everyone loves to eat and what better way to do it than sharing the joy and responsibility of hosting among 4-5 families. In our community, the South Atlanta Civic League recently hosted a Progressive Dinner, which was a huge success! One house hosts appetizers and another the salad starter. One house can make a big pot of soup for everyone—this looks like the perfect fall soup! And then someone else gets to host dessert.

In South Atlanta, we asked all attendees to bring a dish to share to one of the courses. We had no shortage of food! We had the wonderful experience of sharing a meal with new and old friends, as well as walking through the community together from house to house.

2) Host a Harvest or Halloween Carnival

Gather together at a local park, parking lot, or community center and get volunteers to run simple games for kids. Maybe ask a local high school theater department to donate no-longer needed costumes for kids who may not have one. Have a costume contest, give-away lots of candy, and host a fun craft. You can even ask a local restaurant to donate food and drinks, if you want! In South Atlanta, we're hosting our annual Treat Street event, which has become a huge a huge community builder in our neighborhood.

3) Take a Neighborhood "Adventure Walk"

For families or neighborhoods with young kids (ages 3-7), an adventure walk is a great way to get outside together and avoid unnecessary whining and complaining. Invite neighbors to meet up and make sure every kid has their own plastic (or reusable) bag to carry. Give all adults a pen and a pre-made list with 7-8 different items kids have to look for. Things like: find one red leaf, find one small pebble, pick one flower, etc. Even if kids don’t find all of the items on their list, just calling it an “adventure walk” will get them out the door and offer parents a time of connection.

4) Plan an Urban S'mores Party  

S’mores aren’t just for summer camping trips! If dinner invitations strike fear in your heart, invite neighbors over to roast marshmallows! You can gather around a fire pit or head inside where all you need is your stove top and a stack of graham crackers, your favorite chocolate bar, marshmallows, and some metal roasting sticks. Simply hold your “roasting” stick above your gas or electric stove until your marshmallow gets warm and starts to melt. If that seems like too much work, you can even just use your microwave to melt your marshmallow (20 second on high). It’s the perfect way to facilitate community without all the fuss of a big meal.

5) Serve-a-Neighbor Day

Plan a Saturday where you get together to help one family or home that could use some extra hands around the house. Maybe an elderly couple in your neighborhood who could use help raking leaves? Is there a solo parent who could use a few handy people to help clean gutters or insulate pipes before winter? Is there someone who needs a job you could pay for some of these tasks as well? Keep your eyes out for ways to serve a neighbor this fall.

Opportunities for community abound when we’re paying attention to others around us and being generous with our own time and resources. What are ways you have found to build community in your neighborhood this season?


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