NeighborLink is an innovative web platform designed to bridge the gap between the local church and vulnerable homeowners seeking assistance. They have completed over 4,000 projects in Fort Wayne alone and launched the platform in 11 other cities. Andrew Hoffman, the Executive Director, shares with Charity Detox a few pieces of advice for how your church or organization can do service projects or events in ways that are healthy.
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At NeighborLink we see a lot of churches who want to "impact their city" through large and small scale service events. There are lots of reasons why those churches choose an event-based model of engagement, which could and should be discussed. However, for the sake of this post, I want to share a few suggestions that will lead you towards a healthier approach to service projects I've learned over the past 7 years of running an organization operating between good intentions and those in need.
Communication is Key
You would think this is a no-brainer with the leadership of a service project. However, it's something that gets missed all the time. Leaders don't communicate practical details to their volunteers, volunteers don't inform their leaders of schedule changes, and, more importantly, the person you're helping gets the ultimate letdown when a project is cancelled, a team is late, or you leave an unfinished project. Something that started off as a way to love your neighbor ended up being a failed project and leaves everyone frustrated because no one took complete responsibility for the project. You can never over-communicate details, updates, your expectations of the organization you are serving, and what you need from your volunteers. If you don't actually say it, consider it to be unknown.
Connect the Dots
Failure to connect the dots for your volunteers on why their efforts matter in practical ways is easily one of the most overlooked aspects of effective service projects. It is also why I believe local missional efforts often fail to take root inside churches. If you choose service events as your form of engagement with your community, make sure you take time to share why you're asking people to do what they're doing, how it impacts them, and how their efforts matter to those they're serving. Even better, make sure you invite the organization or person you're serving to do that on the project site before anyone does any work. If it's an individual you're helping, have them introduce themselves to the group and vice versa. Always remember: It's about relationships, not projects. If you want your volunteers to get more involved, give them something more than jobs to do. Closely linked to this, is the need to...
Incorporate the Recipient
One way you can make your service events less toxic is by inviting the recipient - whether it's a person or an organization - into being a part of the solution. Ask the homeowner, whenever they can, to pay for materials, volunteer with you, or get a few things done before your team arrives. Ask the agency to have staff or other volunteers they know to be there to join in the service. In our experience of completing more than 4,000 projects in our city, we have seen over and over again how the people we help have something to offer that helps complete the project in meaningful ways. All you have to do is have the courage to ask!
Choose Your Project and Stay Committed
The single most important aspect that makes the NeighborLink platform work is choice. We make sure our volunteer or service group partners choose their own projects and connect with the person they serve directly. We've learned that it's essential for someone other than our staff to make the commitment directly to the recipient rather than us. We do this because an organization is easy to bail on, but it's much harder to bail on an 85 year-old widow because it is raining or you couldn't get the project done on time. I encourage you to get as many of your people personally invested in the work by choosing and owning the projects right from the beginning. And...hear this: keep your commitment at all cost. Don't let the parameters of a service event be your excuse for not completing the project. I wouldn't write this if it didn't happen on a regular basis. Don't let your service event become more important than the reason you set out to do it in the first place. You'll never impact your city if you're not willing to go in and do whatever it takes, even more than you ever imagined, for the cause.
Think Big Picture and Long Term
Finally, the best thing I can suggest is to think big picture and long term when you're planning your service efforts. Question whether the activity facilitates relationships or just accomplishes projects. Figure out how to ensure relationships are developed. If it's just about projects, expect to do more harm than good. Doing service in this way means you'll do fewer projects with fewer people, but it will be healthier and more likely to create the transformation in your volunteers you're seeking.
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Andrew Hoffman is the Executive Director of NeighborLink Fort Wayne and the NeighborLink Network. Andrew believes that social innovation and the power of a healthy neighborhood can transform communities. He and his family live in a south central Fort Wayne, IN neighborhood. They are trying to figure out how to be good neighbors. NeighborLink is an innovative web platform designed with the goal of bridging the gap between the local church and vulnerable homeowners seeking assistance. Over 4,000 home maintenance and repair projects have been selected, organized, and completed by our volunteers in Fort Wayne, IN. They've also helped launch the platform in 11 other cities around the US through the NeighborLink Network.