Photo Courtesy of thestocks.im.
As Senior Program Officer for the Community West Foundation, I try my best to keep up with what is happening with the over 60 non-profit agencies we support. Yes, I do read as many newsletters and blogs as time will allow. I also enjoy talking with staff members from these agencies, as the conversation never ends without me learning something new about the challenges the agencies, and the people that they serve, are facing.
A few weeks ago I started to read an article from an agency we support about evaluations and outcomes with a somewhat cynical amusement, which quickly turned to uncontrollable rage as I read further:
“It is no longer enough to provide a meal, house people, expand horizons through arts programming, or distribute a bag of clothes.” Counseled by a wise friend to take a look at the big picture, perhaps through a Buddhist lens (and a little bit of Dorothy Day thrown in for good measure), I no longer feel outrage, but rather sadness that this way of thinking has invading our honorable profession.
The rest of the article went on to mention the increased pressure to provide quantitatively measured statistics about which programs work best for clients. No doubt this pressure is real as competition for funding becomes more and more intense. My fear is that this emphasis on statistics and outcomes will lead to a focus on those ends, instead of on serving the clients with respect exactly where they are in their lives. My fear is that it will set up a competition among agencies where none exists, since I can say that each of the agencies we support plays its own very important role in meeting the complex needs of so many men, women and children in our community. At Community West, conversations with EDs and Presidents yields much good information, and we try to keep reporting to a minimum. We trust them to do the best work possible, even as they become more and more overworked.
In my search for some peace of mind through Buddhism during this period, I happened to come across some new writing by the esteemed Buddhist psychologist and environmentalist, Joanna Macy, which states that in our culture despair is feared and resisted because it represents our loss of control; and our culture dodges it by demanding instant solutions. But there are none.
This emphasis on creating more work to provide statistical information doesn’t really tell us much that is new. It also reeks of some of the poisons we seem to embrace from the institutions of government and business, neither of which our world is, although we do need, at times, to work with them. A new strategic plan really means nothing to the senior citizen who is hungry TODAY, or long-rang planning to the pregnant mother who is homeless and needs a place to stay TONIGHT, or a new report on poverty to the child whose life is filled with pain and trauma and for whom some time with the arts is the only time he or she can feel safe.
The chairman of our Grants Committee wrote: Our approach, developed through experience rather than as a planned strategy, can be likened to the use of a confederation of militias to fight the war against our myriad problems, rather than the national army. It is this approach that led to Dr. Steph Post to refer to Community West as the best vehicle in our country for liberating the spirit of generosity. He must have it right, because our donor-advised program has grown by leaps and bounds during the past few years, with many of our donors supporting agencies that serve “the least of our brothers and sisters.”
Of course we all want to see an end to hunger, and homelessness, and other the other social ills, but we need to always meet clients exactly where they are in his or her life, and not project what we want for them. To use a cliché from our world, of course we want to teach a man to fish, but until he is ready to learn to fish, we need to give him a fish today and tomorrow and beyond. When the time comes for a move leap forward, it is to be celebrated, and we cannot expect it to happen all too often. And when it doesn’t happen, we can’t fall victim ourselves to blaming the victim.
Ultimately, do we really expect an overload of information to provide answers that we already know? That people will thrive when they can get a job with a living wage, live in a safe environment, and have the health needs of themselves and their families – both physical and mental --- met.
Unfortunately, with information from sources like the amazing Brookings Institute that keep social statistics telling us that poverty is increasing in the suburbs and becoming more severe and concentrated in the inner city, we may feel that “loss of control” referred to earlier. This should not keep us from trying to improve what we can offer, but we may have to accept the bitter pill that until our society, which is based on a system that has failed us miserably, an insidious racism that has given birth to new isms, and a lack of respect – even dislike – for the poor, it’s going to get even tougher.
So perhaps for today it IS enough to provide a meal to someone who is hungry, to house someone who is sick and homeless, and to provide any glimmer of hope to our children in pain. How do we really measure that?
To see more of CWF's contributions to the community and organizations you can get involved with, check out our annual report.