Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Asking Powerful Questions

A Series of 5% Shifts

About this Series

This series highlights “5% shifts” – as we are calling them – that don’t rely on organizations completely changing course and reinventing themselves. We lift up shifts that are both simple and achievable, to inspire service providers to adapt what works. These reports are structured to include both conceptual framing based on research and literature in the sector, as well as case studies of on-the-ground experiments initiated by organizations. They also include discussion materials and other resources to help staff and leaders reflect on the case examples and apply the lessons to their own organizations. We hope that organizations will take what is useful, build on their strengths, and exercise judgment and wisdom in tailoring these examples to make “5% shifts” that fit their specific community and organizational contexts. We invite organizations to spread these lessons and learning throughout the nonprofit sector, and to reach out to BMP to share experiences or to request additional resources or coaching. Feel free to email BMP Co-Director Sean Thomas-Breitfeld at sthomas-breitfeld@demos.org.

About this Report

People working in service agencies constantly ask questions. During an intake process, questions may assess need and eligibility; in a counseling session, questions may focus on strengths and diagnoses; in an advocacy or organizing setting, the questions can be about root causes, power and strategy. While some questions can seem intrusive and coercive, other questions can “open the door to dialogue and discovery” and invite “creativity and breakthrough thinking." Questions can illuminate new opportunities and build a stronger foundation for relationships. Tapping into the power of questions to generate new possibilities and ignite change is an important tool for service providers working to help people and communities.

This report profiles two organizations that began asking new and powerful questions in their work with clients and volunteers. In the case of Crisis Assistance Ministry – an organization providing support to people and families experiencing financial emergencies in Charlotte, NC – the addition of a simple question about voter registration to their standard battery of questions to screen individuals’ eligibility for public benefits both increased the civic engagement of clients and launched an organization-wide shift towards greater advocacy. For reStart, Inc. in Kansas City, MO, the organization had always relied on volunteers to help serve homeless youth, families and adults, but when they began asking people to reflect on both their volunteer experience and perceptions of homelessness, it deepened volunteers’ motivation to support the organization and the people they help.

Service and Social Change Caroline McAndrews Five Percent Shifts Hai Binh Nguyen Sean Thomas-Breitfeld Service Delivery Small Shifts Big Change Series volunteers