It seems simple now.
But I had to hear many voices say it in many different ways before it became simple to me.
Two of those voices, Patrick and Luis, are from a small organization in Montreal called L’Abri en Ville:
Patrick: “Before I came here, I slept all the time. After I ate, I went to bed. Now I go out. I go to the library. I go out to eat. We know a lot of people. We talk a lot. It gives me a chance to socialize. I enjoy my life much better than before. “
Luis: “ I was always working, always with duty and things to do. Here we share, we talk about what is going on and what we’re going to do. We go for a coffee, a sweet. It is the first time in my life that I’m doing social life.”
L’Abri en Ville coordinates communal, independent living apartments for people with mental illness. Volunteers share in the lives of apartment residents. It is a special, vibrant little organization, dedicated to what one board member calls nurturing “authentic community.”
Patrick and Luis describe their experiences at L’Abri in strikingly similar ways. What is astonishing – what feels almost miraculous to me still – is that Patrick is a resident and Luis is a volunteer. Patrick is someone who has been struggling with mental illness for many years. He is the “client.” Luis is a retired engineering professor from McGill University. He is the person meant to serve in this context.
I think most people involved in a reasonably healthy social purpose organization will feel that they are benefiting. But there is something different at work here. Luis doesn’t feel good simply because he is helping someone else or because he is acquiring new skills. He is receiving the exact thing that Patrick, the person he is meant to be helping, receives. He is receiving the thing that is at the heart of the organization’s reason for being. L’Abri exists to develop community, break isolation, and engender meaningful relationships for people who may have struggled to find these things. Though L’Abri’s explicit focus is people with mental illness, in a sense, L’Abri makes its offering to anyone who walks in the door.
Over and over again, in the most vibrant organizations I know, I have seen the same sort of parallel experiences that you can find at L’Abri. I have heard people from all different roles describing the gifts they receive from these organizations in essentially the same terms. These parallels continue to surprise me. I continue to find them beautiful.
We are used to thinking of social purpose organizations in a directional, vectored sort of way. Staff, volunteers, and other supporters are the instruments the organization employs to further its purpose – to serve clients, to transform a specific community, to change social policy, etc. But I have come to believe that a social purpose organization can truly come to life only when that giving vector becomes a giving field – something that radiates in all directions, from each to each.
The first place I really began to understand the concept of the giving field was Santropol Roulant. It is an intergenerational meals-on-wheels program whose foundational purpose is not simply to feed people but to build community for those living with a loss of autonomy and in isolation. Here is a reflection from a volunteer. She is a young, healthy, mobile woman, who would not qualify in any way to be a client at the Roulant.
“I arrived here in Winter. I didn’t speak French. I was living with an older Portuguese couple, so I wasn’t meeting people my own age. When I walked into Santropol Roulant, it was like it was the Garden of Eden. It transformed my solitude. It helped me the way it helps others who need it. It was a space to go when I was feeling cold. It was a smile when I was feeling really lonely. It was a ping pong table when I needed to have fun.”
Sometimes I wonder why all of this seems like such a discovery to me. Why wouldn’t a community organization want staff and volunteers to experience community? But in practice, it is rare. Tana and I have worked for and with quite a variety of social purpose organization over the years, and almost all of them have taken a primarily instrumental approach to doing what they do. Caught up in developing programs and projects and structures to meet their missions, they spend little time considering how people are experiencing those programs and projects and structures, or how those experiences might affect the ability of the organization to further its overarching goals. An expressive approach to social change starts with the assumption that our organizational experiences matter, that those experiences are what anchor the organization’s mission, give it life, and allow our understanding of that mission to deepen.
“We’re not just teaching students how to understand what their quality world is and what their highest needs are. It’s that for the faculty too. It has to be that alive. The purpose of this place is self-awareness so that vital questions are asked and anyone who comes through the door, whether student, faculty, or other, feels the quality of their life enhanced.”
That quote is from a teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School, a public elementary school in a downtown Baltimore neighborhood faced with any number of stubborn social issues, from poverty to crime to drugs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that students, staff, and parents find the school remarkable. “It’s the best place I’ve ever worked.” “I’m finally learning how to teach.” “This place saved my life.”
So for me, the expressive shift has been a revelation. And now through Organization Unbound we are taken up with trying to share the idea and to understand how such a shift takes place. What are the practices that sustain this perspective in a social purpose organization? What are the beliefs, the behaviors, the structures, and the relationships that constitute a giving field?
In this blog, we hope to discover those practices with you. We’ll talk about the people and organizations we visit and the little ‘aha’ moments we have, and we hope that others will join us to extend the conversation.