How to Listen: Responding and Adapting for Community Development

 Founded in 1964, Hope Southern Indiana, “HSI”,  provides an insightful perspective when it comes to community development.  Rather than seeing other local nonprofits as competitors for funding, HSI sees them as fellow collaborators working towards a better community. They understand that if their mission is to enhance their community, and these other organizations are working to enhance their community, then helping other nonprofits furthers their mission.  To that end, HSI oversees a volunteer network program whose aim is to connect skilled individuals with nonprofits that need their help. This programmatic model helps not only the needy in their community, but the servants of their community.

This is an article I wrote as apart of a state sponsored grant portfolio, Bright Ideas Indiana, researching and highlighting best nonprofit practices in the State of Indiana.

Hope Southern Indiana (HSI), formerly the Interfaith Community Council, has been serving the needs of its community in New Albany since 1964. Originally founded as a four church collaborative with a goal to provide after school programming for school-aged children, the organization has undergone significant programming changes since its establishment. Throughout its existence, HSI has made it a prerogative to programmatically evolve alongside its community so that their mission of “promoting individual and family stability” could hold true despite sociological changes within generations.

HSI has worn a variety of hats over the years. Christine Harbeson, Executive Director of HSI, describes the process this way,  “Because we are rather old as a Nonprofit Faith-Based organization, we have had many programs come and go based on need. If our community needs something, we’ll try to help. But, if someone else comes along and begins providing that programming, we tend to bow out.”  Rather than focus on a single program area, HSI chooses to specialize in listening and responding to its community’s needs. Including the needs of its community’s nonprofits.

While some nonprofits can view other organizations as competitors in the game of  funding, HSI takes a more holistic approach.  They understand that if their mission is to enhance their community, and these other organizations are working to enhance their community, then helping other nonprofits furthers their mission.

One such program that emerged from this was HSI’s decision to sponsor a Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). This program was created by the Corporation for National and Community Service and is administered by HSI. It is a network that specifically recruits individuals over the age of 55 and encourages them to use their work experience and skills to benefit local nonprofits by engaging in volunteer opportunities. HSI matches volunteers’ skill sets and interests with the nonprofits in need. “The volunteer network is so crucial” say Ms. Harbeson, “because our nonprofits need skilled staff but don’t have the budget to hire. We realized that we have skilled volunteers in our backyard within our retired community. Just because they’ve retired doesn’t mean we should lose their knowledge and skillsets. Most people that work hard their whole life and then retire want to do something during retirement that is meaningful. Through this program we help nonprofits to meet their staffing needs and equip retirees to use their retirement to make a difference.”

Unlike other programs at HSI, RSVP is not a faith based project. It recruits volunteers for their skill-sets rather than their faith statements. In this way,  they expand their network’s reach.

New Albany Henry (2)

On average, HSI sees RSVP volunteers participate in at least three different programs, projects, or nonprofits within the community. Yet, matching volunteer interest with nonprofit need can be tricky at times. People’s egos, their motivation for volunteering, their investment in short or long term projects, their physical capacity, as well as their past professional experience, can all be factors that determine whether a volunteer will be a help, or a hindrance in different programs.

Similarly, there may be volunteer interest in a type of service but there’s not always nonprofit need. Programmatic shifts happen all the time and some volunteers that love their posts are no longer needed.  Such as when Meals on Wheels transitioned to frozen meals and no longer needed HSI to supply volunteer drivers, or when the local hospital was bought by a for-profit group and eliminated their volunteer program. In those moments, HSI needs to be ready to respond to ever changing program and volunteer needs whether by redirecting volunteers, as they did with Meals on Wheels volunteers recruiting them to conduct Dial-A-Care phone calls and nursing home visits, or reevaluating with volunteers where their skills and interests could be used next.

Administratively, this program took time to perfect. For twenty years HSI has been administrating RSVP, and initially the program was a resources drain. Ms. Harbeson said, “We felt this program was so important to our community even though it was a money loser. Our program director believed in it consistently for twenty years and made sacrifices to make it happen. But, it took those years and years and years to get this program where it’s at.” While RSVP now results in a yearly net gain of three million dollars in volunteer hours to local nonprofits, it requires a great deal of oversight. Currently, four out of HSI’s nine staff members are needed to oversee the RVSP program…(continued)

This article was originally published on the Bright Ideas Indiana blog and can be read in full here.