We practice proximity and collaboration in our programs
We base our mission on a theologically informed theory of change, designing and evaluating programs with significant leadership from the communities we serve, and in active partnership with others in our field. We practice proximity and collaboration in our programs, resisting the temptation to shape our work from a comfortable distance.
Every nonprofit has two headwaters: need and hope. We see a gap in existing structures and institutions and become convinced that someone must rise to the challenge of filling that gap. And we come to believe and hope that we have identified effective ways to make a difference. It is out of this initial identification of need and articulation of hope that our mission originally arose, and they remain the most powerful sources of energy for growing and sustaining our work.
Yet to the extent that we begin our work as outsiders, with solutions we hope or assume to be innovative, we often lack the patience and discipline to get proximate, study the complexity of the issues, and make time for mutual learning and cultural understanding. Even those who begin as “insiders” can quickly become distant from their original context. As our programs grow, we are tempted to evade the challenging work of clarifying our mission and testing its assumptions. Did we actually identify the original need correctly? Are the strategies we put our hope in actually effective over time?
This is not to say that we do not develop indicators for our work. But sometimes these are simply the items that are easiest to measure—like budget size, growth rate, and “percent to program”—rather than the ones that best measure our work’s actual effect. And because of the stakeholder gap, we often fail to track what matters most to the people we serve. We stop learning and too easily fall into the rut of complacency.
In the worst cases, we are sufficiently isolated from the complex realities on the ground that we come to believe that our organization is the answer, the missing puzzle piece, to the problem we have identified in the world. We relegate to the background the two most important contributors to our success: those we serve, and the other organizations and actors working on adjacent issues.
Meanwhile, we are tempted to avoid developing and asserting a theory of change for fear that it will reveal complexity in our mission field that we cannot actually control, or demonstrate the incompleteness of our interventions. Even if we have articulated such a theory, we neglect to assess and refine it based on feedback from our (hoped-for) beneficiaries over time. We also can easily neglect to shape, test, and refine our theory of change based on a theologically robust view of human beings and societies, settling for accounts of both problems and solutions that are too thin and neglect social, relational, and spiritual dynamics.
All this makes us more likely to perpetuate programs that support our initial conception of our mission and theory of change, rather than evolving them to meet actual needs—or to chase changing currents of culture and philanthropic fashion.
We prolong dependency on our organizations and fail to create opportunities for leadership from the community. And we may even treat other organizations as competition for resources and success rather than co-laborers for the same cause.
Instead, we long to see our community’s need more clearly, and to rekindle our hope that change is not only possible but truly underway.
1. We seek creative ways to root our work in the communities who know the challenges and opportunities best. Our program leadership includes ever-increasing representation from these communities. We plan, execute, evaluate, and report together through teams that include multiple stakeholders.
2. We define our mission in clear view of our interdependence with other actors and agencies in the community and broader ecosystem. We investigate existing organizations before beginning a new program or service that would fulfill a similar goal, with a bias toward collaboration and open-source learning rather than autonomy.
3. We publish and invite accountability for a theory of change or impact model that tracks how programs facilitate true behavior change and flourishing in those they serve.
4. We invest our time, energy and resources in the programs that generate the greatest outcomes. Our culture of intentional monitoring and evaluation sets the expectation that we will prototype continuously, abandon unfruitful pilots, pivot less-productive programs, and sunset projects that have served their purpose.
5. We develop and affirm (at least internally) a statement expressing the theological vision underlying our mission of restoration and a biblical basis for our theory of change.
6. We routinely investigate and decline attractive opportunities that promise growth but are not essential to our mission.
THE GOOD NEWS
When we are no longer merely interested in the lives of our beneficiaries but become implicated in them, we bridge the stakeholder gap and are more likely to avoid the nobility trap. The closer we are to the communities we serve—physically, relationally, and operationally—the more meaning we and our team will experience in our work. Our learning will be more agile, our insights more reliable, our decisions more fact-based, our partnership more genuine. Though the work may sometimes be slower and more arduous, it will also be more substantive and lasting.
As we collaborate with others, we are set free from the temptation and burden of territorialism—the need to count indicators of success in our field as belonging to us rather than the overall mission of God in the world. Indeed, we are set free from the tyranny of the word our, as if either the problem or the solution belonged to us.
Proximity and partnership mean that we become less satisfied with merely technical or sentimental interventions that lend themselves to superficial metrics.
Our original senses of need and hope will be re-animated through a heightened awareness of the dignity, tragedy, and possibility of human beings and their societies in light of the redemptive power of God.
This deep sense of mission helps us stay the course under conditions of both frustrating setbacks and intoxicating success. Anchored in good news that does not depend on us for its truth or efficacy, we have the endurance and confidence to pursue lasting, restorative change.