Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Social Service, Social Change

Lessons from Detroit

In the spring of 2003, the Building Movement Project brought together several nonprofit executive directors in Detroit to talk about the challenges they faced in their work. Their organizations covered a wide span – from health care for low-income children to food for the hungry to youth services for teens – but all had a common interest.  They wanted to know how they could look beyond their day-to-day services to address the broader issues affecting their constituents.  Despite their different backgrounds and experiences, this group of executive directors all noted a growing demand for services from the poor and working poor with little relief in sight. The number of people in need of services was increasing, and business as usual was no longer working.

Throughout the country, directors and staff of nonprofit groups are interested in how to make more systemic change but often have little training or background on what that means for their organizations.  For Building Movement, the Detroit work is part of a national model for how service organizations can integrate social change/justice into their work and to give voice to their constituents.  The vast infrastructure of direct service groups could be a powerful force in building the voice of people in the U.S. who have been marginalized. Service delivery organizations have daily contact with poor and working poor residents, and other underserved populations. Many of these groups continue to reexamine their work as a result of government funding cuts and policy changes that have often had a devastating impact on their constituents. Service groups recognize that they cannot meet the growing needs with fewer resources. At the same time, they acknowledge that even the poorest constituents have something to give.

This report examines some of the signs of change that have surfaced in the Detroit organizations.  We hope these observations provide some insight into the process, and some of the transformations and challenges that have occurred up until this point.
(© 2005)

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