When people ban together as volunteers to help their neighbors we see people at their best. Neighbor helping neighbor. That desire to help those who suffer any type of misfortune is a key to what gives our lives meaning. Man’s inhumanity to man has always been trumped by a desire to help those in need. We all admire what groups like local religious and civic groups, totally as volunteers, do in our communities. And we rightfully recognize those efforts as part of what it means to be fully human.
More often than not that help has come in the form of a helping hand out of a bad situation. It doesn’t always find a solution to the underlying problem, but it finds a way to temporarily relieve some of the pain. It is much like a bandage that temporarily covers a serious wound. Food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, and temporary shelter for the homeless, are examples that have been around for centuries. My experience doing “home visits” as a member of St Vincent de Paul was both challenging and rewarding. But it didn’t take long to realize some of the folks we were helping would need the same help again in the not too distant future. We weren’t solving the problem; we were putting a” bandage” on it.
Over time many of those efforts have grown into larger nonprofits with paid staff and fewer and fewer actual volunteers, actually directing the efforts. As these nonprofits have grown most have found it easier to hire help to replace the volunteers than learn how to recruit and train the volunteers who were the core of the nonprofit at the outset. Like most things in life there are pluses and minuses to this growth. On the upside as an example, on the medical side these larger nonprofit groups have been able to fund research that has found cures and treatments for hundreds of deadly and disabling diseases. The ones that are successful replace the bandage with a solution.
But on the down side when large nonprofits took the place of community centered, volunteer groups, which help feed, clothe, and shelter our less fortunate, they haven’t found solutions but instead just kept putting bandages on the problems. They built big warehouses to hand out the same food boxes we have handed out for nearly a century to those that are hungry, and we built more and larger shelters to house the homeless. When we hired “experts” to solve the problems we got the same old “Bandages”. Just on a larger scale.
A good example of this is feeding the hungry. Most people don’t realize super markets across our country provide for free the lion’s share of the food needed to feed the hungry in our country. Feeding America in partnership with most of the large and small food banks, pantries and distributors offer this food to those in need in the form of prepackaged banana boxes full of food. For as long as this has been the “solution” a lot of this food goes to waste because the recipient can’t or won’t use a lot of it. For more than almost half a century Feeding America has failed to come up with a way to eliminate some of this waste. Some independent nonprofits have successfully allowed the hungry to shop the shelves of their food banks, much like a real market, to take what they want and would use with good success, But since Feeding America controls all the super market donations these efforts find it hard to survive and grow. And it is also why food drives are becoming a thing of the past. They don’t need food they need cash to support the overhead of something that was once done mostly by volunteers. And since they are not doing it any better than the volunteers we have to ask why we need to pay that overhead. Feeding America does a lot of good, but it does not encourage new or better ways of how this might be done.
Thirty years ago, Common Cause, claimed to have found a solution to the homeless problem. It was called “Housing First”. The basic idea was if you provide housing for the homeless and they will miraculously overcome whatever problems lead to their homelessness in the first place. Three decades later homelessness is a larger problem than ever, But as hard to believe as it is, most of the people who run homeless programs today still subscribe that some form of that solution, Housing First. And very little has been done to look for an alternative. They fail to recognize the homelessness is not a diagnosis, it is a symptom, and different symptoms need different treatments. Like most things in life simple solutions, like bandages, seldom solve the problem. But most people leading homeless programs, maybe because it’s easier than coming up with a real solution, still believe or at least say the bandage of housing first will work.
Much of the blame for the lack of effective problem solving by nonprofits has to be laid at the door step of their funders. And sadly the largest sector of that funding comes from state and federal governments. And because lawmakers want our tax dollars used effectively they want to see lots of people helped for as little money as possible. It has turned grant writing into a numbers, “bandages”, contest instead of finding real solutions. And all you have to do is look at the neighborhoods around homeless shelters to imagine the condition the motel conversions to homeless shelters, that are the latest version of Housing First will be in a decade. And with it the total collapse of the surrounding businesses and neighborhoods. Why aren’t we trying something different, this idea is proven not to work for more than twenty years?
We must demand that nonprofits with paid leadership and staff need to not just provide bandages to those they serve. But they need to be actively working on solutions to the problems they are dealing with. And for those that have not found solutions they should at a very minimum be actively searching and testing for real solutions to the situations they are tackling . Bandages are for volunteers, Paid nonprofit leadership need to have finding solutions to the problem they face and putting themselves out of business as a major part their mission statement.
The way to make that happen is for donors, grant makers, and the government agencies who control the funding demand it, before money is given. Nonprofits need to make these efforts the theme of regular reporting of how they are progressing in eliminating the need for bandages. They need to quantify their results with real numbers, and dollars spent. And those numbers need to be readily available on nonprofits websites and part of any grant application. The goal needs to be solving problems not just applying a lot of bandages.
In recent years the amount of people who donate, and the donations, to nonprofits has declined precipitously. Americans want to help those that are struggling, but they want to think their help as volunteers and donors are making a difference. For too long a lot of the work nonprofits have done has either not changed bad situations, or they haven’t effectively explained why their efforts are working. This new transparency and accountability will help to solve that dilemma. And it will serve as an incentive to encourage more of us both as volunteers and donors. Because community involvement is the real key to solving these difficult issues.