“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Not-for-profit organizations and the communities they serve have a unique and reciprocal relationship. The most effective nonprofits often began as grassroots efforts by a few women and men who came together, identified a need in the community and begin to dream about how to address that need. A healthy nonprofit understands the need for collaboration, working with other groups and individuals to build holistic solutions that work. And for a nonprofit to stay healthy, to continue to grow and provide the services that shape its mission, it needs to listen and pay attention to the community; to respond and adapt to the changes that occur there.
Several years ago, immediately following the arrest of Jerry Sandusky for child sexual abuse, several nonprofits in our community — the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, the Youth Service Bureau, the YMCA and the United Way — came together to talk about what the community needed from them in the aftermath of one of the worst scandals to impact the Centre County community.
We knew, as organizations whose missions focused on keeping kids safe and addressing sexual violence, that the community would look to us for leadership. All of us got phone calls from folks in our neighborhoods, churches and schools asking, “How can we address this issue? What do we need to do to protect our kids from sexual abuse?” Because we understood this community, because we listened to the needs expressed, we brought the Stewards of Children Child Abuse Prevention Program to Centre County. To date, more than 7,000 parents, teachers, youth leaders and community members have been trained in how to recognize, prevent and respond if necessary to child sexual abuse.
That is the kind of listening and collaboration that is needed for nonprofits to flourish, but more importantly, to live into their missions of service. Lindsay Kolsch, CFO of To Write on Her Arms, a nonprofit working with those struggling with addiction or depression writes that, “We try to come alongside people and interact with our supporters so that they know that we see them, we’re with them, and we’re in this together.” The most important thing a service nonprofit can do is to “come alongside” their community — those they serve and those who support them — so both the client and the community will know that they are seen, heard and not alone in whatever struggles and challenges they face.
Sometimes this means asking the community “what’s changed?” or “what do we need to be doing differently?” As we at the CCWRC have asked this question over the past couple of years, we’ve had some surprising responses. While our support in the community has never been stronger, we also know that many people still don’t know that we work with children and that our services — all our services — are available to male survivors of sexual and domestic violence as well as to those who are women. We have been intentional in listening to what our community is telling us about what is needed and how we might respond more effectively. And we are being more responsive to what we’ve heard.
As the local non-for-profit whose mission is empowering survivors and eliminating domestic and sexual violence, it is critical that we maintain a healthy relationship with our Centre County community, “coming alongside” them in a way that makes our work possible. Because we know that we’re in this together.