Last week we in America celebrated our Independence Day. July 4th is a celebration of the American Declaration of Independence. Strange as it seems to most people, this day does NOT mark the day we gained true independence (defeating the British in the American Revolutionary War) or the first day our young government convened. …
This one was hinted at in #8, if you caught that reference. I’ve seen this cardinal sin of community service in many settings, but especially in the times when nonprofits have had to compete for “new turf” due to available grant funding (it sounds like this in a board meeting: “We can get this grant money but they want us to expand our program THIS YEAR into x neighborhood where we don’t have any contacts”). I’ve also seen this in cross-cultural missions (here or abroad) when the group simply doesn’t have the proper local contacts, but is trying to do something anyway. The net result is that these Lone Rangers can end up making HUGE mistakes, offending the communities they are trying to serve, and alienating the leaders who could have prevented mistakes and improved chances of success in the first place.
Why is failing to consult community leaders an issue? How does it lead to project failure? More than most other issues, this one is easily preventable by investing small amounts of time to meet and talk with local community leaders. When we try to serve people in a community but do not take the time to meet the local leaders before our project, we seem like an invading army from the outside. Even when we are part of the community, it may seem like we are trying to go around the local leaders, or worse to subvert their place of leadership.
Let me illustrate with a scenario: A church-based group from a nearby neighborhood has a heart to reach out to inner city kids through a summer carnival-type event. They plan the entire event without talking to the local church and community leaders in their area, print flyers out for the entire neighborhood and wait for the parents to bring their children to the event. Meanwhile, parents are asking around to see who else is going to take their kids to this church that none of them currently attend. They are suspicious about the church’s motivations. They ask their community leaders about the church. The community leaders are surprised about the event and tell the parents that they have had no contact with that church. Suspicion about the church’s motivations grows. Few parents bring their children to the event. Some choose to come anyway.
How could this church have handled the situation better?
A few ideas: send a delegation of leaders to meet the local community leaders in this nearby neighborhood– maybe other church pastors in the area, the local city council member, area business leaders and the directors of community or youth centers. Tell them about the idea of the carnival and let them know your motivation is to be a blessing and serve the community. Ask them to allow you to post flyers at their locations and to announce the event in their church or other program services. Ask one to be a co-sponsor to begin developing a relationship with the community leadership. Let them know you are not out to steal church members, but to serve their community, develop relationships across neighborhood lines and work together to improve the area. Let them know you are in the community for the long-term and want to make such events regularly scheduled.
When we operate as Lone Rangers and neglect to involve the local leaders in the areas where
we are trying to undertake community service, we risk alienating the very people we are trying to serve and reducing our effectiveness. Or even worse, we risk offending the leaders of the community and jeopardizing our ability to conduct community service projects in the area.