5 Simple Ways to Learn About the Needs in Your Community

As I’ve become a bit more connected to the non-profit world the past couple years, one side effect for me has been an increased commitment to trying to align service activities with the real needs of the community.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but for a lot of people (Not at all our college students studying in one of the richest cities on earth, nope.  Not them, just hypothetical people.) volunteering is something they do for them–for their resumes or their greek group. Sometimes, they only want to do certain types of jobs with certain types of organizations.  And more often than should be, that means that they leave feeling great, but no real good was done.

Enjoying the service and meeting real community needs are by no means mutually exclusive.  It is 100% possible to be passionate about the service you are doing and to also being doing something that is valuable to the community.

On the other hand, sometimes a non-profit most needs you to clean up a storage area.

Judging by the state of my closets and garage, one could gather that this is not a passion of mine.

But when we plan our all-school day of service, about 70 partners agree to host work groups for the day.  We ask them to set up the project, so that it will truly be of help to them.  Of those 70 projects, want to guess how many of them involve cleaning, organizing, or grounds beautification? About 40.

My coworker’s husband just returned from Mexico, serving with a ministry partner there.  He said he had a great time, and when asked about their work, he delightedly said they cleaned toilets.  My coworker assures me this is NOT one of his passions.

So passion alignment may not be 100% possible 100% of the time.  Some of the time, you and I need to suck it up and do an icky, no glory, doesn’t make a good Facebook profile pic kind of job.

But the better we know the needs of our community, the more likely we are to find a service opportunity that is a win-win.

So how do we learn about the needs of our community?  Here are a few suggestions:

1.  Read the newspaper.  Checking out articles about your city or larger metropolitan area will clue you into some of the challenges the community faces.

I also recommend reading good op-ed writers, like Nicolas Kristof, who focus on justice issues around the world.  One student in our office connects tutors to classrooms in a juvenile detention camp nearby.  She reads the LA Times crime section on a near-daily basis.

2.  Look into one issue area at a time.  If the question seems overwhelming, don’t try to ascertain all the major needs of your whole city in one swoop.  Instead, look into the ways one issue plays out in your city.  What is education like?  How many people in your community experience hunger?  Is you area susceptible to environmental racism?

Trying to answer one specific question can be easier and more engaging than taking on something broad.

3.  See if an organization you already know about has a local chapter.  If you have had past experience with an organization that you enjoyed and who does good work, visit their website to see if they have a local branch in your area.  If not, they may still have other partners they support who are near you.

4.  Look around.  Who are the cooks in your low-paying restaurants?  Where are the bus stops and who rides the bus?  Do they look the same or different from people who ride your subway?  Or drive?  Do you know a teacher?  Ask them about their students–who are they and what challenges are they facing?  Use the people and experiences that are right in front of you.

5.  Serve somewhere.  Maybe you just need to dive into a service experience, and commit to learned as you go. Ask questions of the staff and the people you serve while you’re there.  What are the challenges you and your organization face?  What do you most enjoy about working here?  How long have you been involved here? How’d you first find out about this organization?

Not only will you learn a ton, you may discover a passion for that type of service that you would not have anticipated.

How have you learned about the needs of your community?  What experiences or reading or conversations offered you that insight?

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