February marks the completion of my 9th year as the executive director of NeighborLink, which in many cliche ways seems to have flown by. My journey with NeighborLink started about three years prior in 2005 as a volunteer at a local church by just showing up for projects being organized by leaders within the church. I naturally gravitated towards tangible service opportunities and had a limited, but present background like a lot of young men do in yard maintenance and projects that simply required being present and helping do whatever was needed. I started by showing up, mowing grass, packing boxes, and doing my best to paint. Just showing up turned into project leadership which eventually turned into co-leading our church's local, tangible outreach initiative called GO Day over the course of a couple of years. NeighborLink was the tool that we used to find the majority of our projects. I really connected to the concept of being able to find projects that I could do and being able to work directly with the homeowner to work out the details, and I believed that this form of ministry was vitally important after getting to know so many wonderful homeowners that were simply isolated from community, or suffering through life's circumstances with no one else to help them handle the day-to-day responsibilities that were so simple for me.
At the time, I was "climbing the ladder" like you do when you're in business and just getting started in your career. I had great jobs in advertising that I loved and that rewarded me pretty well in both resources and opportunities. However, I was gaining a greater awareness of the injustices in our neighborhoods as I was volunteering and even in the business world. I became restless, or better yet, the Lord was transforming me through my experiences and calling me to something different. This is a much longer story than this blog has space for that I'd be happy to share with you over coffee sometime. I spent a lot of time wrestling with the tension that more could be done for our neighbors, and that maybe my current career was not the right fit. After months of praying and conversation, I decided that it was time to leave advertising, take an unidentified amount of time off, and simply volunteer with a few organizations until the right door opened professionally. That desire to leave was calculated in both effort and timing, but as the Lord can do, he disrupted my timing and I ended up being downsized along with another account executive at my firm. I was launched into this new season, and embraced it like I had imagined after a bit of shock.
For the next couple of months, I detoxed from four years of college and the last four years of jobs while volunteering 20 or more hours a week, meeting with people I aspired to be like, and took any opportunity to interview for a new job that was presented to me without actively looking for a job. This time was incredible and time I wish more emerging professionals would take in their mid-twenties if they're able to. The time where I spent volunteering and meeting people in jobs that interested in me without the pressure of needing a job was phenomenal. You learn by doing, ask the questions you want to ask without fear, and you invest in meaningful things. I do my best to encourage people in their twenties to join a committee, volunteer, and make commitments to organizations/clubs that require something of them.
In the time off, I was invited to interview for the director role at NeighborLink. Since I was a volunteer for a number of years, leading the type of church engagement initiatives that NL was about, and had gotten to meet many of the board members, they gave me the opportunity. It was an honor to be considered and I remember entering into that conversation with the board of directors with a clear understanding of what I thought was great about the organization and what I thought was broken, but had no idea really what being an ED of a nonprofit was about. I was offered the job and had a hard time saying yes because I had no idea how to run an organization let alone be the only employee, which resulted in several weeks of conversations and prayerful consideration about the role. In February 2008, I took the job and began immediately to make the changes necessary to begin directing the organization the way I felt it could be directed.
A lot has happened in the nine years I've been around. I spent the first six years as the only employee responsible for every aspect of the organization. From designing the website to leading volunteer projects to fundraising to learning far more about complex life circumstances that I could understand that vulnerable homeowners are facing. All of these things are still true today, but with some incredible co-workers and tremendous community support. We've gone from a $45,000 organization with 1 employee and 45 completed projects in a year 9 years ago to over $300,000 in operational budget today with 3 staff and over 700 projects completed in a year. Since 2003, NL volunteers have completed over 8,000 projects and I've been able to witness close to 6,000 of those. We've redeveloped and re-designed the website 4 times and have developed the NeighborLink Network, which has been the platform launched in 11 US cities. NL has become a trusted and respected small organization filling a gap in housing needs, and innovating the way volunteers are mobilized.
We continue to believe that our central vision is to use technology to document the calls of the most vulnerable in our community, and to eliminate the barriers that keep the local Churches, and a lot of business, civic groups, and concerned neighbors from loving their neighbor in practical, neighbor-to-neighbor expressions of God's love. We no longer want the Church to ask, "Who is my neighbor?," but "how can I love my neighbor?"
In the past nine years, my understanding of what it means to love my neighbor and what the role of the Church or concerned citizens in that has grown. No longer do I simply understand that as a transactional action that has me redistributing my resource to someone else. It has expanded to exploring how to be a neighbor first, and redistribution second. In essence, how do I come alongside someone else in order to better understand their situation and what they can contribute as a way to honor their own resources before offering or leveraging my own. I've come to learn that the vulnerable we have in our communities are not all powerless, lacking resources, or in need of saving. They often are just void of community that can guide, encourage, and simply help them do what they know they can do on their own if they just had a little help. They have barriers that they need help moving out of the way or in getting over.
This learning has expanded my desire to learn more about the "bigger picture" that pressures entire neighborhoods or circumstances such as fixed income retirement. I've learned that housing for fixed-income senior citizens is crumbling around them. I can imagine a major issue in our cities in 10 years as people that were at one time able to live in their own homes can no longer maintain them, which will create a massive inventory of housing with significant issues. This may have always happened, but society is changing to the point where kids are no longer eager to care for their ailing parents, and the numbers of people in this situation are massive. I'm also intrigued by comprehensive neighborhood development where you set some boundaries, become like neighbors, and do what no one else wants to do in order to build trust and invite vision for a place that seems to be forgotten or looked at as beyond hope. What if the Church or a community of volunteers got behind something like that? Complete physical transformation of a place that is driven by relationship, unity, hard work, and hope in a better place to call home. I've been exploring ways that NL can be more involved in these kind of initiatives in the future.
NL has transformed my life and the way my wife and I look at the way we live our lives. To be neighbors, or to love our neighbors well, cannot be fully experienced without an all-in mentality. I'm grateful that NL is thriving and the Lord continues to use it as a vehicle to love those in need and to expose his believers to greater visions of Kingdom oriented life. My job is to create that environment, resource it, and then get out of the way in order to see neighbors connect with the goal of meeting tangible, relational, and sometimes spiritual needs. Volunteering at NL is about your personal or spiritual journey, not about the projects we want to accomplish. I look forward to seeing what happens in my 10th year here at NL.
I have so many of you to thank for your ongoing support of NL through the years. You are responsible for our success because you take the projects and you make the financial contributions to keep NL healthy and active. The NL staff and myself are only small parts of NL's overall success. We hope you'll take your first project or your 30th this year. Remember, it's up to you to choose to help someone else, but when you do, we're here to help.