How Direct Service Drove Me to Community Impact

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 8:51 am
Shanee Helfer

I looked down at my phone as it began to ring and I screamed with frustration, “Seriously? Again?!? Don’t they realize that it is 3 p.m. on a Friday?” That was the tagline I was known all too well for when I did housing relocations for tenants. Housing inspectors would notoriously find a home to condemn for unsafe housing conditions, including supporting beams being taken down and illegal sleeping quarters in basements, attics, and even kitchen pantries.

Each time I got that call, I thought I had already heard it all. But each time the situation seemed more complicated than the last. It was like a sinking ship. Every time I plugged a hole, another one would unveil itself. These holes are challenges citizens have to overcome that are exacerbated by the systems that affect our communities. As I unraveled the causes of these challenges I realized direct service alone will never solve them, nor will any one organization be able to plug up these holes alone.

The systems that created the slew of challenges I faced when trying to directly affect a family’s well-being included rent control, education, and awareness around tenant rights and responsibilities; landlord responsibilities; outdated housing codes dating back to the early 1900s; low wages that could not meet housing costs; language barriers; trust from the community to local government; lack of synergy between public and nonprofit sectors-the list goes on and on. There was no way I could change these systems by myself, and neither could the program I was managing since unsafe housing is an issue that plagues almost every city in America.

As I began to evaluate the impact I was making through direct service, I realized I wasn’t accomplishing much, especially compared to the time and effort I was putting in. Acknowledging the perpetual cycle our systems have on our work helped created my passion for strategic philanthropy and community.

After three challenging, exciting, and educational years I left direct service to follow my passion and interest in community impact through United Way and joined the Council’s community foundation services team last August. Soon after, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) released a report acknowledging the challenges of implementing a successful strategic plan.

In my short time working with community foundations, I have found that our hearts are in the right place as we acknowledge problems and imagine many solutions. However, the question that needs to be asked is: “When it comes to your strategy for creating change, have you aligned your entire organization and community around an action plan to strategically tackle each system that is involved in the issue you are trying to affect?’

CEP is providing an opportunity for the field to explore this challenge and learn about the successful strategic alignment of the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, one of the profiles highlighted in the report. Register for CEP’s webinar, “The Challenge of Strategy: From Rhetoric to Reality,” January 10, 2:30-3:30 p.m. ET.

Shanee Helfer is manager of community foundations at the Council on Foundations.

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