By Jim Wehner It is no secret that Focused Community Strategies is a development organization. For us, that means that we focus on development as opposed to relief. It also means we are often swimming against the stream of traditional charity.
Most charity in the U.S. is based on a relief (or give-away) paradigm. We think this is the right way to deal with crisis need. A quick influx of resources to provide housing, food, water, clothing, and financial aid can meet needs for a short time, allowing those we serve to recover from a crisis. We are always blessed to see friends and neighbors giving generously to support others in crisis moments.
But that response is not what Focused Community Strategies aims to do. Our niche is working with chronic need and social injustice as it impacts the neighborhoods we serve. We have learned over time that answering chronic need with relief-oriented charity ends in dependence rather than empowerment. Ultimately, it hurts those we desire to serve.
To help us stay the course, FCS created an internal document that guides how we do development. We use it at both the board and staff level to help us make smart development decisions. This document changes as we adjust and grow in our thinking. Here are a couple of principles from that document:
1. Work in partnership, which is essential to transformative, holistic community development.
Before we take on a new program in our focus neighborhood, we ask the question, Is there someone we can partner with that is already doing this well?
For instance, on our latest program - a small grocery store - we first went to traditional groceries to ask if they would come into the neighborhood. When they declined, we gathered a group of professionals in the grocery industry and asked them to help us develop a model for our small market. Partnership brings more resources and relationships to the neighborhood than we can bring alone.
2. Ensure goals and priorities are truly shared by putting the interests of the neighborhood above organizational self-interests.
This balance is extremely difficult to manage. Both FCS and our focus neighborhood have dreams and agendas. FCS has a clear, strategic plan that includes ideas we have for the neighborhood.
One of the ways we promote shared interests is by having staff live in the neighborhood, as well as having neighborhood representatives on the FCS board. We do this with a great amount of care.
Our neighborhood-based staff members have to live in the tension of being a neighbor while also participating in an organization that is trying to help the neighborhood develop. At the board level, it takes the right neighbor that can participate in healthy board-level debate.
We have seen neighborhood residents take the position of gatekeeper for the neighborhood and restrict the work of the board. These instances are painful, and they require a board to be skillful and gracious. Once again, this is a tension we choose to accept and live out as an organization.
3. Limit one-way giving to crises and seek always to find ways for legitimate exchange.
When there is a crisis in the neighborhood - such as a house burning down, the death of a family member, or a job loss - FCS will gladly step in and help. But we have learned that the best crisis response often comes from within the neighborhood itself.
A block is strengthened when neighbors watch out for neighbors! So, though we are often the first to receive a call when their is a crisis, we are rarely the first to respond. We will prayerfully wait and watch. Ultimately, if we are the “right” responder, we will step in. But this happens less than you might think.
4. Seek ways to empower by hiring, lending, and investing and offer gifts sparingly as incentives to reinforce achievements.
This is where we love to work! Building small businesses that provide jobs and meaning to the lives of individuals. Creating opportunities through well-placed investment in someone’s life. These investments come with real accountability that builds trust over time and allows a person or organization to flourish.
Some folks think that we can be harsh when we talk about the issues around toxic charity. After all, Jesus would never say, “no” to someone in need would he?
Isn’t it interesting that the writer of the fourth gospel, John, tells us that Jesus was exercising his love for Mary and Martha when he made them wait two days before coming to their side at the death of their brother, Lazarus? In the same way, we want to listen and respond carefully and in ways that best show our love for our neighbors.