NeighborLink shifts growth model for longer-term impact at grassroots neighborhood level
At NeighborLink, we believe the primary marker of our success is depth of relationship and impact with neighbors.
But as NeighborLink continues to grow, there is an increasing need to adjust to that growth and redefine, tackle, and reshape what different areas of success look like.
“There’s just really this season of, we’ve got to try a handful of things to understand how this works, because it’s new territory for us,” said Andrew Hoffman, Director of NeighborLink.
Until now, NeighborLink has primarily assessed growth and success based on relationships; if there have been significant connections between volunteers and homeowners in a given year, it was successful.
Though the primary goal never sways from “relationships built over projects completed,”NeighborLink’s operational growth and increased responsibilities to funders, requires more detailed reporting, which challenges us to think in new and more critical ways." We are delving into new ways to track growth and expand impact without losing the goal of authentic relationships. It is challenging us to look at measurements of success that may be vital in bringing a more comprehensive approach to neighborhood development.
“At times [metrics aren’t] void of relationships, but they don’t always include relationships,” said Andrew. “Relationships and the depth of relationships are really actually pretty hard to measure.”
After 15 years of collecting the tangible needs of vulnerable neighbors that are falling through the cracks of traditional social services, the data starts to tell us a lot about the types of housing issues truly fixed income (aging and/or disability) homeowners have and the collective housing stock health in any given neighborhood. Because we care about relationships with homeowners, we get concerned that their home may become beyond repair and won’t have a suitable place to go.
Taking a dive into the data to answer these questions breaks past the surface of looking only at depth of relationship or the crisis moments we're addressing. We’re diving into the details of our organization and looking to build a stronger infrastructure to foster our goal of relationships and long-term impact.
“We don’t turn anyone away, so we get all kinds of really unique information, because anybody could ask for anything. That data is coming from vulnerable homeowners that we can track; whether someone has a disability, what type of disability, and/or if somebody is aging – we’re interested in that,” said Andrew. “When you collect 2200 projects a year, that begins to say something year after year about our community as a whole.”
Instead of a primarily decentralized volunteer structure, we are working to implement a system that starts centralized – training volunteers, helping them through the first phases until they are comfortable enough to initiate and take on projects by themselves. Provide enough structure to get them going and then try to get out of their way.
We want to look at the types of projects being done, and the impact those projects are having throughout neighborhoods. For example, we could do 500 projects a year, and if all 500 are clustered in 1 or 2 neighborhoods, it tells a different story than if 2500 projects were happening scattered across the city.
“The long-term kind of growth we’re trying to figure out, is how to be more strategic with the amount of projects and volunteers we’re working with,” said Andrew.
Last year, in 2017, was the first year NeighborLink set exact project-related goals, using data from 2014 - 2016 to establish a baseline. Some goals were project-based, like complete 1000 projects, but the more specific goals were relationship-focused. For example, to work with 100 different groups of volunteers and reach 60 percent volunteer retention rate.
In an effort to increase volunteer engagement and neighborhood development, NeighborLink is trying to work with volunteers to become less dependent on the organization and work independently to invest in their neighbors.
“We’re trying to work with volunteers to get to a place of transformation in order to really execute on some things we want to see happen,” said Andrew. “Like longer-term relationships with folks and helping understand what neighborhood development looks like in their specific neighborhood.”
Unfortunately, there are always more projects than volunteers.
On average, volunteers only complete about 35-40 percent of project requests a year.
“It often feels like for every project we do, we get 3 more phone calls,” said Andrew. “We’re just never keeping up, there’s never enough volunteers.”
Although last year we saw an increase, with close to 46 percent of projects requested completed and a 47 percent increase in total projects completed, there is still a deficit between requests from homeowners and volunteers to help.
“That’s what we’re trying to do is [fill] in those gaps in order to get more people engaged, to follow through, to educate, equip Fort Wayne to be better neighbors,” he said.
It takes a lot of energy and resources for a small, grassroots organization to not only attract volunteers to the mission, but to retain them to keep investing on their own. Until now, NeighborLink has not had the manpower to facilitate and build those deeper relationships and has been scrambling to meet the demand coming in, whether for those wanting to volunteer or those needing help.
“Relationships matter, and if you don’t have people in place to facilitate and build relationships – even with your volunteers – it’s hard to accomplish your mission,” said Andrew.
This year, NeighborLink brought on 3 new staff to work at solving volunteer engagement issues, closing the gap, all while building deeper and more sustainable relationships.
NeighborLink has recently brought on a Volunteer Coordinator, Community Relations Coordinator, and an Operations Coordinator.
The new staff will be implementing volunteer education and creating effective training to build a more sustainable and comprehensive foundation for reaching our community.
Wading through unexplored territory as a small nonprofit, navigating the terrain of neighborhood development and decentralized volunteerism poses complications and challenges.
“The fact is, when you serve at the bottom of the social service funnel, you start to do things nobody else is doing,” said Andrew. “There’s no rulebook, and you kind of have to be able to figure it out as you go.”
Pulling together the innovative and entrepreneurial minds, NeighborLink is hoping to build even deeper relationships and leverage their resources to spur neighborhood development in the community through deeper, more comprehensive tactics.
“At the end of the day, we want neighbors to be able to live independently, not dependent on other people,” said Andrew. “We think by rebuilding more inter-dependent neighborhood structures, that’s actually possible.”