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Using Community Connections To Solve Community Problems

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

When I’m not doing the sales leadership job that pays my bills, I spend a fair bit of my time volunteering for a homeless services organization in Chicago.  Care for Friends seeks to connect Chicago’s most vulnerable and under-served populations with the resources they need to enable a better life.

At the center of their strategy is a hot meal program that serves lunch to up to 150 guests at a time.  It's a family-style setting where homeless friends share tables with volunteers and social workers to eat a meal that anyone would be proud to serve in their own home.  Different from a cafeteria-style soup kitchen line that tries to processes people in and out as quickly as possible, it’s a place that encourages diverse groups to congregate and build communities and connections over food for hours at a time.

Recently, I had the opportunity to reconnect with a guest who was once a regular visitor to the program, but no longer has a need for the free lunch.  He’s been working and living independently for a few years now, but it was the first time I’d heard the details of his homelessness from years ago. 

While homeless, he’d spent a few years moving around Chicago parks in a tent which he shared with a small community of folks. While living with this group, he completed an addiction treatment program, and got clean and sober – which enabled him to find and keep a full-time job that paid more than minimum wage.

Yet, despite the fact that he’d accumulated enough money to move into an apartment of his own, he chose to remain living on the streets an additional 18 months – until each of his tent-mates also was able to get on their feet.

I was flabbergasted.  Last winter, I slept outside for a single night in the snow  as part of a fundraiser for the homeless organization.  It wasn’t one of the coldest winter days in the Windy City, yet I was eager to take the first opportunity I could in the morning to pack up the tent and return to a warm home as soon as the sun rose. 

To think that this gentleman voluntarily extended his life on the streets simply to ensure that other members of his community also could move ahead showed a commitment to community (and deprioritization of self-interest) that I’m not used to seeing in the “work hard to get ahead”/”if I win, you have to lose” culture of corporate life I spend so much time in.

Yet, this philosophy of a community of people banding together to solve community problems is at the heart of every part of the organization’s approach to serving the homeless.  Their social media pages are filled with examples of local grocery stores and restaurants that donate food to program guests, or local new balance store which gives homeless guests free shoes to wear. The local AT&T store regularly volunteers to cook and share meals with homeless guests, and a partnership with Obamacare Navigators resulted in over 70 homeless guests getting enrolled for healthcare services that they were entitled to but not using. 

Indeed, what inspires me about this volunteer organization is that it’s not trying to become the biggest, single source of service for their guests (which is inherent in the mergers and acquisitions strategies I’m used to seeing in my day job).  Rather, it’s a group that looks at the problems that need solving, looks at where there are already solutions in the nearby community, and acts as a bridge to connect those disparate resources (from disparate organizations with disparate goals) to those most in need.

It’s a model I’m not used to seeing daily.  But it is #WhatInspiresMe today.  

So I’m curious to hear your views.  Must an organization merge with or acquire others in order to become the sole source of all of their clients’ needs? Or have you seen examples where an organization is the most successful at creating the biggest impact by connecting a variety of groups with different interests?  Is a community, connections-based approach the best way to solve problems in the community like homelessness?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.  And if you found this post meaningful, let me know by giving it a “Thumbs Up!” and sharing it with your networks.

About:  JD Miller is a senior technology executive with a career spanning small startups and large public companies.  He uses this expertise to help organizations increase and sustain sales performance.  He is also active in Chicago’s philanthropic community, with a special interest in issues related to hunger and homelessness.

You can follow Dr. Miller on Twitter @JDM_Chicago

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