Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Asking the Right Questions

Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

There are many questions that nonprofit leaders ask of themselves, the communities they serve and the society at large. Often these questions are very big picture ones about the nature of the inequity that the organization tries to address. And sometimes in the daily work of providing services and administering programs, the questions get narrower – to determine eligibility, to calculate impact and figure out if the budget will stretch enough. In our latest report on “5% shifts,” we turn our attention to the questions that organizations can ask to integrate social change goals into their service delivery practices.

I first learned about the importance of asking the right questions in college; where like all social work students I completed a practicum working in a social service agency. The purpose of these placements is to help students integrate the four years spent studying theory with practical field experience, and develop the core competencies needed for effective social work practice. Fortunately, I was doing casework under the close supervision of a social worker who was an experienced therapist. One of the skill gaps that my supervisor zeroed in on was my one-on-one engagement with clients. She had me write much more detailed contact notes than the organization’s paperwork demanded. These notes were like a transcript where I recorded what I said/asked and how the client answered, and they were often the subject of our weekly supervisory meetings. My supervisor would ask things like “why did you ask x instead of y?” or “how do you think that question was received by the client?” Through this practice of ‘questioning the questions,’ I learned to think much more deeply about what information I requested from clients, and what information I provided through the questions I chose. I learned that questions can communicate judgment rather than curiosity. The wrong question can cause someone to shut down the conversation, but the right question can open up reflection and insight.

reStart, Inc. is asking the right questions of its volunteers. They are opening up new conversations with volunteers by asking them to consider the context for homelessness in their community. The practice of asking volunteers questions that go beyond the details of their volunteer activity has deepened the commitment to both the organization and its mission to end homelessness. Similarly, Crisis Assistance Ministry – the other organization profiled in the report – started asking clients new questions about voter registration that led to a surge in registration and voting by their client base.

The importance of questions – what questions are asked, by whom, and who gets to answer them – has been important throughout my career. In organizing and advocacy, we often asked questions about social problems, policy interventions, and who can be targeted for change. We asked questions about the nature of injustice to spark outrage and motivate people to take action. We asked questions that don’t have easy, obvious answers.
Those questions without simple answers are sometimes the most valuable ones because they lead to reflection and new thinking. In a continuum of questions that can be asked by service providers, the ones about root causes of the social problems our organizations are trying to address might be bigger than 5% shifts, but are ultimately the questions our organizations and sector must ask if we’re going to contribute to progressive social change.

**photo from restartinc.org**

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