by Jim Wehner
This past year, FCS has faced the reality that two of our longtime programs were not producing the results we so often discuss and demand of other organizations. Make no mistake, these are important programs. When we talk about the work of FCS, these two legacy programs are often part of the discussion. But what do we do when our beloved programs have lived (or even outlived) their time?
Some of you reading may be already saying, “just shut them down!” But as a leader of a nonprofit, I can tell you there are competing voices from all the invested parties in a legacy program.
1. Staff (or congregation) - Getting a group of passionate, justice oriented community developers to agree on the right the plan of action is a feat in itself! Many of our staff have devoted their lives to what they do. They encounter Christ in the margins where we have chosen to serve. Mess with those margins, and you may be stepping on their very faith. Ouch!
2. Neighbors - The most obvious adjustment of our legacy programs is the fact that we are changing, reducing, or restructuring our services to people we love! My experience is that, when we do this, our neighbors speak up. In my most honest moments, I admit I would rather maintain an outdated, toxic program than leave our neighbors with nothing.
3. The Bible - As Christians, our fundraising and program stories often include Scripture. Jesus speaks of the “least of these” and the programs we run are designed to build them up in Christ’s name! With that foundation, how on earth do I communicate that we are no longer offering the program? You get it, right? It’s not that this program is somehow designed to work into eternity, but when you connect its purpose to the eternal Word of God, people never think about it failing, or even coming to an end.
4. Donors - Let’s face it - legacy programs connect us to a support structure. Whether it’s real or imagined, there is a risk of losing funders that were connected to that specific program. It’s a rare nonprofit leader that can ignore this reality.
Of course, none of these voices alone make it worth maintaining a program that destroys dignity or builds dependency. But when these voices combine, it can push the strongest leader or organization to question motives and intentions.
So how do we do it? Here are four elements we’ve included in our transitions at FCS:
1. Start the conversations. - You have to begin to talk with staff and neighbors about the program, its effectiveness, and ideas. Listen to them, and let them tell you what they think. These conversations take time. With the two programs FCS closed, the process took more than a year in both cases. The staff grudgingly came around and even began to lead the discussion with the recipients. Strong leadership will engage the multiple voices listed above.
2. Gather your data. - Get the history of the legacy program down in writing. What is the key issue this program is designed to solve? Is it still solving that issue or has it morphed? Both our programs were more that 20 years old, and they had experienced multiple changes over time.
3. Celebrate the successes. - Once you have done the work of naming the legacy, you will be able to give it the honor it deserves. You can legitimately celebrate the great work that has been done - changed lives, faith stories, and God-sightings are all part of its story. As you celebrate, you are also reminding people of the reason the program was created and setting the stage for its transformation.
4. Launch a quality replacement program. - If you are exploring the option of implementing an alternative program, gather a group of experts to help you shape that program. Ministries often start new programs after praying and feeling a sense of calling, but they rarely ask those who have expertise to help them. Creating a high-quality program to replace your legacy program will ease the transition as well.
In the last year, FCS closed its transitional housing facility and its thrift shop. The transitional housing was a 64-unit apartment complex that helped people transition out of homelessness and brokenness. It was a great program. Unfortunately, over its 28 years of operation, it had become burdened with issues of building maintenance. FCS was simply unable to sustain its operation, so we made the heartbreaking decision to close it.
We raised the money to hire a case manager, and we relocated every family that wanted our assistance. Now, eight months later, we are in the process of rehabbing 12 houses in our focus neighborhood and trying to acquire 12 more for 2016. There is no way we could do this work while bearing the financial weight of maintaining a dilapidated apartment complex that was no longer serving families well.
The thrift shop simply lost its steam. Yes, it was providing clothing at a low cost, but we didn’t feel it was building dignity into the lives of our customers or community. It wasn’t that it was a failure, we just knew we could do something more transformative in the neighborhood. We also had another organization opening up a thrift store near ours. When we were honest with ourselves, we felt they were more strongly positioned to do this ministry.
So we asked the neighborhood what they would like to see in that space rather than a thrift store. As of last month, you can now shop at the Carver Neighborhood Grocery. The grocery provides affordable and healthy food options to a neighborhood considered a food desert. We now employ five young people from the neighborhood, and they are learning transferable skills they can use in the broader marketplace one day. And to top it off, we have a growing partnership with another organization!
Saying good-bye to programs that have been meaningful to staff, the community, and supporters is no easy task. Change always comes with its challenges, but it's also full of new beginnings. We are excited about the current work happening at FCS. By making the decision to change, we have written a new future for FCS and the neighborhood we serve!