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Have you ever taken a walk or a bike ride with no real target, no agenda, no destination?  These can be fun every now and then, but if there is someone else with you chances are you will disagree on where to go, how long to be gone and when to turn around toward home.  And the bigger the group (and maybe the younger they are), the more questions are asked like, “when will we be there?”  If you have no destination in mind, how can you even answer that question?

 

I don’t know why, but most people find volunteer or nonprofit work an acceptable place to not have an end goal in mind.  The excuses are myriad, but might sound like this, “there is so much work to do, we will never be done anyway” or “we don’t want to set a goal because if we don’t achieve it that will make the people we are serving feel bad, like they didn’t matter to us.”  There are others, but those are two I’ve heard more than a few times.  How can we get away with this attitude of a wanderer when it comes to service when we would never tolerate that from a company like Apple or Wal-Mart – and we certainly wouldn’t tolerate it even for our own family vacation (imagine just starting out to drive to Florida with no idea where Florida even is)?  We would never even think of doing that, hopefully.

 

We get away with it in the community service realm because not setting concrete goals and holding ourselves accountable to them has become acceptable in our society.  Not everyone neglects goals (and there are some awesome people doing great work and KEEPING their promises to communities), but it is prevalent enough in our society that setting goals can somehow seem to be too serious, not relaxed or “not organic”.  So how do we set a new standard of accountability and excellence, yet still maintain our laid-back, hipster image?  We must be forward-thinking and backward-looking.

 

Forward Thinking

Being forward-thinking means that we must start out with the end in mind.  We must have a goal before we get started, which to some puts you in the category of “brilliant visionary” and to others “nerd”.  But it is more simple than the first and more cool than the second.  The marathoner doesn’t just start out running haphazardly, somehow expecting to be ready to run 26.2 miles within a few hours.  No!  He sets a training schedule based on a reasonable expectation of completion time, then he diligently implements that schedule, even in bad weather.  In the same way, we have to decide beforehand what our goals will be and how we will know if we have met them.

 

So, say you were wanting to help your school’s Boy Scout troop do a community service project of cleaning the roadsides around the school.  You would decide beforehand what the definition of clean is – this might include trash picked up, leaves raked, twigs and fallen limbs removed, and maybe grass trimmed and mowed.  Maybe it only includes some of those.  Then, during the project if one Scout is not meeting the definition of clean, he can be held accountable and sent back out to rake or trim more thoroughly, or whatever he has fallen short in.  But if there is no goal, any work, even shoddy work, is OK.

 

Backward Looking

Being backward-looking means that along the way we must check, as a group, to see how our progress has come along toward that goal.  If that same scout troop knew they had 2 miles of roads to clean up and half of their time had passed, then they should have completed 1 mile.   If at the halfway point of time the troop is less than halfway in progress, then they can figure out what is slowing the work down and change their plan.  In that way, problems could be identified quickly and solved, while the group as a whole kept their pace up to ensure completion within the given time frame.  Or maybe they realized that another day would be needed to finish the job to the accepted standard.  That day can be scheduled and the community aware of the extension in the project time.  That might even motivate some community members to come out and help too, just to save the troop from the second service day!

 

Every project, even a modest one like a road clean-up day, should have a goal so that the participants and those being served can acknowledge the job is done – and so that there is a natural break time for evaluation of the project.  Any project that goes on seemingly forever is disheartening to those helping out and will eventually cause volunteers to abandon ship due to burnout.  Working without stop toward an undefined goal will feel like toil, not joyful work, even in service.  On the other hand, goals give us something to celebrate when we achieve them, something we as leaders should provide for anyone sacrificing their time to give back to the community.  Remember, we are still human after all, not emotionless robots, and we need to feel like our work makes a difference.

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.

The Lone Ranger

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.

Sometimes the most interesting way to study a subject is to look at the failures.  In medical school anatomy class, one of the first things we did was watch films of horrible athletic injuries.  Football players breaking legs or tearing ligaments; skiers crashing into snow-covered slopes at 80+ mph, breaking untold numbers of bones in the process; and bikers flying over the handle bars to sustain broken collar bones.  While to the casual observer these things might seem somewhat perverse and morbid (OK, they are), they helped us to understand the mechanism for injury and how, later, to restore the body back to its natural function.

This sparked an interest later for me to examine community service project failures throughout my time in the Executive Director’s slot of a nonprofit, whether those were my own failures or those of others I knew.  I have developed a list of “never do these things” pertaining to community service.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I will share my own “Top Ten” ways and attitudes which are almost assured to bring a project to a failure – or at the very least limit its impact.

#10: Don’t even try to serve others

So this might be a little obvious, but there are a lot of people in the church sitting on the bench when it comes to community service.  They have gifts, talents and connections that are not being utilized.  Many of these people might feel inadequate, or that maybe serving others is the job of the super-holy Christian or church leader – or worse yet, community development professionals only.  Some of these people might not know where to start or what to do, and so are paralyzed in inactivity.  And a very small proportion might just be too self-absorbed, over-committed or plain lazy.  Some might think, erroneously, that the only thing God would require from us as believers is to show up on Sundays, give some money in the offering, smile and be nice at church, and try to obey the Ten Commandments the rest of the time.  Some might think, also in error, that there is a verse in the Bible someplace about how God loves those who help themselves, so if we help others we are short-circuiting God’s work in their lives.  But mostly, in my experience, people who are sitting on the bench had no idea that there was a game happening and that they were not involved in it.

So, how do we counter this in our lives?  We need to honestly examine our attitudes about serving others.  Then we need to ask ourselves some tough questions:

  • What do I really believe, deep down inside, about serving others?
  • What is keeping me from participating in service projects?
  • How can I overcome these attitudes and start serving other people?
  • How do I serve at my local church?  Are there opportunities that I know about already but am not involved in?
  • Do I volunteer in outreach or service projects outside of church?
  • Do I teach my children about giving to others and do we as a family participate in some type of giving above our tithe to church – both financially and with our time and talents?
  • Do I have preconceived ideas about other people, especially those of different economic, racial or religious backgrounds, which have kept me away from opportunities to serve others?  If so, how can I overcome these?
  • Who do I know who serves others well?  How can I seek their help to increase my own involvement in service projects?

The most important questions we can ask ourselves are the ones that get to the motivations and attitudes of our heart.  If we are not serving others because we are broken inside or have selfish motivations, then we must allow God’s love to meet us in that place to bring healing.  I hope you can start the journey today toward giving of yourself to others.  God doesn’t want any of us to be the “negative” example to others of how NOT to follow Him.  He says that He makes us to be like a “shining city on a hill” so that others may see us, know that He exists and give glory to Him

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