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Public PolicyFrom ‘Burden’ to ‘Blessing’: A Case Study of an Appreciative Inquiry Process.
Organizations move in the direction of the questions they ask. Appreciative Inquiry offers a strength-based approach for organizational change. It empowers the wisdom that may reside deep within the heart of the organization.
Faith-based non-profit ministries often wrestle with the question of whether to accept public funding. Many of these ministries are facing diminishing donations from individual donors and churches. The dimensions to this question are multifaceted. First, is the need to find a funding paradigm that will ensure financial survival in challenging economic times. Second, is the issue of whether the non-profits faith-based ministry will be compromised by accepting public funds. Underlying these questions is the relationship that faith-based non-profits have to their ‘secular’ counterparts serving high-need communities.
Interfaith Hospitality of Spokane is one such faith-based organization that found itself in the Fall of 2006 needing to revisit its mission, reshape its funding paradigm, and reassess its relationships within the community it serves. The Board of Directors of Interfaith invited GRE Consulting Associates to facilitate the visioning process at a time of transition in leadership on the Board. It was a time when the organization found that its historic reliance on churches and individuals for support to serve homeless families, would not accommodate the need to expand services as more and more families faced homelessness in the community. The economic factors contributing to increased homelessness, were also contributing to diminishing donations to non-profit ministries.
Interfaith Hospitality of Spokane (www.lihnspokane.org) is affiliated with the National Interfaith Hospitality Network, now named Family Promise (www.familypromise.org). Family Promise is a national network of one hundred fourteen affiliates in thirty-seven states that use the services of more than 4,000 congregations and 100,000 volunteers to link church congregants with homeless families. The local Interfaith Hospitality Networks (IHN’s) provide homeless families with children, emergency and transitional shelter, meals, counselling, and additional support services to help them regain their independence (www.ihnspokane.org/familypromisehistory.htm).
Like most of the IHN’s, Interfaith Hospitality of Spokane (IHS) has operated since its inception, outside of the arena of government funding. Since 1997, a network of thirty ‘host’ and ‘sponsor’ churches have provided emergency shelter within church buildings, meals, and volunteer hours, while a small paid staff brings case management services to homeless families. An active Board of Directors spearheaded campaigns to raise cash for program operations. The Board looked to the Appreciative Inquiry process to find new ways to be effective in ministry.
IHS today has growing and diversified revenues, with more than twenty-two percent of funding now coming from public sources. The new funding paradigm that evolved from the Visioning Process had intended and unintended consequences. We examine these organizational changes through a Case Study approach (www.managementhelp.org/evalutn/casestdy.htm). This approach, which has both benefits and limitations, provides a holistic portrayal of the organizational change process at IHS during the three years after the Appreciative Inquiry Visioning Process. Our Case Study involves extended open-ended interviews with three stakeholders of IHS. Through the voices of these stakeholders, we gain a view of the changes in the organization. We uncover shifts in mission focus, partnerships, service-delivery model, and funding paradigm. We can trace each of these to the Visioning Process that initiated a revisiting of the organizations mission and purpose.
The Visioning Process was a full-day retreat held on a Saturday in a home. Samuel Mahaffy of GRE Consulting Associates (www.greconsulting.org) facilitated the process. He had a relationship with the organization at the time, having been involved with IHS for several years serving meals with his family to homeless families in their local church. The circle of twelve participants included incoming and outgoing Board members, key staff, and a ‘client’ of IHS—a mom who had been supported by the organization while she was homeless with her two young children. We asked participants to bring nothing to the meeting, except their ‘heart for Interfaith Hospitality’, willingness to listen to each other, and a commitment to stay throughout the process.
Using the Appreciative Inquiry Model (www.appreciativeinquiry.case.edu) these key stakeholders revisited the mission of IHS, and explored a new direction. In keeping with the spirit and methodology of Appreciative Inquiry as a tool of organizational development, this process sought to bring forward the strengths of the organization, the motivation of those who contribute so much to it in terms of time, effort, and financial resources, and envision a desired future.
GRE Consulting adopts with some modifications the Five Phases of the Appreciative Inquiry Process (the five “D’s) in its facilitation of visioning processes for faith-based organizations. Our approach is that the first ‘D’ is ‘discernment’. This is a quiet time of listening for God’s leading of the ministry of the organization and the direction of the process. It grows organically from the Quaker roots of the lead facilitator in a tradition that emphasizes listening more than speaking and values that God’s leading may come through any person participating in silent worship in the manner of Friends. The Appreciative Process as we experience it with faith-based organizations has a worshipful quality to it. It is a time to reflect deeply, to listen well to each other, and to speak from the heart.
In this spirit, participants in the Visioning Process began to speak of the deepest motivations that brought them to give so much to this ministry. From this day-long visioning process, emerged a subtle, yet profound shift in the way that the organization looked at its mission. The focus shifted in an almost imperceptible way. Instead of seeing itself as an organization that “exists to minister to the homeless” there emerged a sense of the organization as one that exists to “share the blessing we have experienced in working with homeless families to regain their independence”. That shift was two-fold: First, it focused more on assets and less on deficits. Secondly, it emphasized relationships that are more complex. Instead of focusing only on the relationship between the homeless and those who provide services to the homeless, the emphasis shifts toward relationships among an array of community partners, including the network of IH churches, other service providers (both faith-based and secular) and both individuals and organizations in the community impacted by homelessness. In this shift, the conversation at IH began to focus less on the ‘rightness’ and need to help those most in need, and more on the sense of blessing and growth that IH stakeholders experienced in their ministry.
That almost imperceptible shift in focus emerging from the visioning process was to have profound impact on the way IH did business. On the Board, this meant a shift away from a perception that too much was being asked of Board members and staff with too little support. Under the leadership of the very capable and service-motivated incoming President of the Board, there was a renewed sense of commitment and purpose. The period from the fall of 2006 to the present, saw the IH Board evolve into an exceptionally strong and functional Board. We analyze in a separate publication what makes for a strong and effective non-profit Board and how the IH Board reflects these characteristics (www.greconsulting.info). It is our experience that Boards emerge stronger and more cohesive, when they have participated in an Appreciative Inquiry Visioning Process. Suffice it to say here, that the emergence of a new funding paradigm would not have happened without the renewed energy and commitment of the Board of IH.
From the Visioning Process, came the commitment of the organization to seek public funding to compliment private funding. This new funding paradigm grew organically from the IH sense of itself as a more collaborative organization, that was intent on sharing with others the blessing that they experienced in ministry. The shift came at a time that the organization was at a low point. The facility that was its home was dilapidated and needing attention. A crisis in management required the Board to step in and both make a change in staff leadership and implement new management and financial controls.
As part of this process, the organization looked toward expanding its partnerships with both service providers and funders. Clearly, the organization needed to look outside of its historic giving ‘base’ of faithful individuals, if it was to move to a new level. Without a more diversified source of revenues, the organization was not likely to have a sustainable future. Many of the supporting churches of IH are mainstream Protestant denominations that have themselves seen membership declines and reductions in giving. The financial supporting base of IH was experiencing its own stressors.
The core value shift in the visioning process in the Fall of 2006, was for the organization to focus more on the ‘blessing’ of its ministry and less on the ‘burden’ of serving homeless families. That value shift led to shifts in the service delivery model toward one that was more collaborative, and a shift in the funding paradigm that blended public and private funding revenues. From the visioning process, the Board set the goal over the next years to blend public and private funding in their financial planning model, without losing their historic private donor base. At the same time, they set the goal to deepen community partnerships with other agencies serving the homeless.
Has this goal been achieved? What are the anticipated and unanticipated impacts of federal funding? How has the new paradigm influenced the culture of the organization and its service-delivery model in either obvious or subtle ways? The interviews with the Board President of IH (President), the Executive Director (ED) and the host church volunteer coordinator (Vol.) tell the story in the voices of the organization. From these three open-ended interviews, several themes emerge.
1. Public funding has allowed IH to expand dramatically the number of clients it serves. With the acquisition of public funding, IH moved forward between 2006 and 2009 from serving 22 families a year with extended comprehensive services, toward reaching its goal of serving 50 families. Additionally, new public funding has meant a better DayCenter facility and the addition of transitional housing units to serve homeless families. Staffing has increased, not to manage the increase in funding, but to provide the extended case management services required to serve more families.
2. There is a shared perception between the President and the ED that this funding is contributing significantly to the sustainability of the program. “It has kept us solid”. IH achieved the goal of a more diversified revenue stream. Additionally, there is very much the sense that it has reduced the stress in the organization about finances, and as a result has allowed more focus to be on relationships with homeless families and community constituencies. Board members and staff share this sense of “celebration” that there is a more solid financial footing. In stating that “the City funding has been a blessing to our program”, there is a component of that blessing that comes from worrying less about financial resources.
3. Especially from the ED, comes the belief that public funding has increased the knowledge and skills of the organization. “Because we have been able to expand our program, we have increased our network (of collaborating organizations), and as a result we have increased our knowledge and skills. That has led to an increase in our effectiveness”. The President speaks to the new rigor that has come to the organization because of public funding. While the Board has been engaged in planning and goal setting, the grant applications for IH require the use of a logic model and the setting of “specific and measurable outcomes”. Quarterly reports require attentiveness to evaluation of effectiveness in reaching desired outcomes. A new modality of program review and evaluation comes hand-in-hand with the new paradigm of blending public and private funding to achieve the mission of the organization.
4. There is a shared perception that this new rigor in effectiveness evaluation has led to a validation of the organization and its mission in the perceptions of the public arena. The President states: “There is a validation of IH in the public perceptions by our being approved for this funding. In this past (funding) year, we were selected for grant funding renewal, while many good programs did not receive funding. I reference this when I speak publicly. I let folks know that their contributions can go 100% to meeting the needs of homeless families, because funding for administrative and other operational expenses is carried by grant funding”.
5. The development model at IH is to leverage approval for public funding along with its match requirement as a strategy for increasing individual donations. IH now sends out a direct appeal letter to its donor base with the approval of each significant grant application that has a required match component. Response from donors to this approach has been positive. The concern that public funding might precipitate a drop in individual donations has not materialized. The feedback we receive is that donors like and understand the concept that their contribution is leveraged, because it meets the requirement to obtain public funding.
6. As a result of the approach of blending public and private funding, IH has increased its accountability. At its last Board meeting, the Board approved changes to the Accounting Manual that grow out of recommendations from the CPA who prepares the annual audit report. Quarterly reports require the organization to account both for expenditure of public funds in accordance with grant funding priorities and approved budgets, and also accountability for raising the required match requirement.
The IH stakeholders we interviewed see this as a good thing, rather than as a burden. “It has required us to be sharper…to be more accountable”. While IH has always been frugal with funds donated to its program, it is now more strategic.
7. Public funding came to IH because of its willingness to collaborate with other service providers, both secular and faith-based. At the same time, this funding has enhanced collaboration. Informal collaboration has in many cases been articulated into a Memorandums of Understanding or Memorandum of Agreement that defines mutual expectations. These more formalized relationships define specific ways in which service providers will support each other’s mission and avoid duplication of effort. Well-defined collaborative relationships contribute both to strengthening the ability of IH to obtain public funding, and its ability to achieve desired program outcomes.
Our interviews with stakeholders of IH began with open-ended questions designed to encourage interviewees to speak freely about the impact of public funding on the faith-based mission of the organization—without a bias toward an expected response. It is only after these responses, which were very substantially positive, that we check this information by asking if there has been any ‘downside’ to public funding. We then go further to ask very specifically if public funding has in any way “compromised the faith-based mission of the organization”. In the themes that emerge from our interviews, we find a sense of renewed growth that come from the work done during the visioning process.
Beyond these themes, there are some intriguing findings in our case studies in responses to the interview questions. The staff of the faith-based IH found faith connections and motivations with their counterparts working in secular agencies. They recall being supported and providing support for the work they do. They speak of a ‘shared calling’ with those who work in public agencies. There is further mention that the partnership has increased their awareness of the struggles faced by public agencies providing social services to high-need communities. Additionally, one interviewee, expressed that he felt differently about how his tax dollars were being spent for the public good, when he was in “in the trenches” with those serving families in desperate need.
Our case study of Interfaith Hospitality provides evidence of substantial benefit that this organization has received from participating in public funding and reshaping its financial model to balance public and private sources of funding. The Appreciative Inquiry Visioning Process is significant in both shaping this outcome and causing it to come about. The move into a broader collaboration and a new focus on “sharing the blessing of ministry” was intentional and a direct outgrowth of this process.
Private funding was enhanced, rather than being supplanted, by public funding. The organization does not see a downside to the process of public funding. They do see significant ways in which it has affected the culture of the organization, even over the relatively short span of three years. Because of the blending of public and private funding, the organization is under less stress in fulfilling its mission, it is more collaborative, and it is more rigorous and accountable in setting program goals and outcomes and measuring progress toward those desired outcomes.
IH sees their organization ‘validated’ in public perception as a service provider because they are not “going it alone”. The narrative that individual donations can now be used to directly and entirely support homeless families, has helped to increase private donor support. New partnerships and more formalized collaborations have helped IH obtain public funding which judges the strength of a grant application in large measure on the strength of collaborative relationships. It has also led to increased knowledge and skills and increased effectiveness as the staff of IH ‘rubs shoulders’ with service providers in other agencies.
From the visioning process of IH, we take the important learning that organizational learning and personal growth go hand-in-hand. When we engage in a process that calls us to speak from the heart and to look deeply at our commitments to our mission, and our motivations in serving, we can expect our own hearts and lives to be changed.
The Volunteer Coordinator for IH expresses this well. “I have been changed by working with homeless families. I am less judgemental and slower to jump to conclusions that families end up homeless through some fault or character defect. As a result of this work, I am a better listener, and able to be more compassionate”. It is a resonant theme that IH stakeholders are blessed in the living of their mission. It is also their experience that sharing the message of that blessing is an effective development strategy.
A collaborative Appreciative Inquiry Process in 2006 was the beginning of a three-year organizational change process. The visioning process led to partnerships that are more expansive and to a more collaborative service delivery model. In a sense, the heart of Interfaith Hospitality of Spokane as an organization, expanded in the visioning work that stakeholders did together. The shift in emphasis from the burden of serving the homeless to the blessing of that service has enriched and brought new life to the organization.
The author, Samuel Mahaffy, is Executive Director of GRE Consulting. As an Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, he has facilitated many non-profit faith-based Boards of Directors in the Visioning Process. He has advance training in organizational leadership and is pursuing doctoral studies in Contemplative Leadership. We invite your comments and feedback on this Case Study to firstname.lastname@example.org or on our website at www.greconsulting.org. A full copy of his paper, The Impact of Public Funding on Faith-based Organizations: A Case Study of Interfaith Hospitality of Spokane is available on request.