As the US federal welfare cash assistance program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has declined over the past decade, nonprofits that assist the poor have become a stronger part of the US social safety net. Instead of dealing with just short-term needs, these organizations are turning to what we call “relational work”—such as coaching, mentoring, family development, and forms of case management—to get people out of poverty over the long-term.

A Major Shift

For the three largest national organizations that provide direct aid to the poor—the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and St. Vincent DePaul—the trend toward ongoing relational work is a major shift in philosophy and practice. The Salvation Army previously provided financial help with utility bills, rent, and other needs, but with only minimal interaction between staff and client. Its new Pathway to Hope program takes a case management approach that focuses on “client needs through a strength-based lens,” and involves regular meetings with social workers for activities such as one-on-one counseling and life skills training.

Catholic Charities, a decentralized network of more than 160 local agencies and 2,759 sites, has made the same kind of changes over the last 10 years. The majority of its funds goes to food banks and pantries, but its ever-expanding relational work includes forming individual opportunity plans for clients, and offering financial literacy and other programs that help them make smart choices about finances. One Catholic Charities CEO described this change as going from a “transactional” to a “transformational” mode that is oriented to getting people out of poverty long-term rather than just serving immediate needs.

In the past few years, the Society of St. Vincent DePaul has been undergoing a similar shift to “end poverty through systemic change.” Traditionally favoring parish-based assistance, such as the delivery of food or clothing through home visits by volunteers, members are now incorporating an approach that looks at long-term needs.

These agencies and others have met annually since 2011 to “re-imagine the way America addresses poverty.” Joining them in 2014 was the network behind the 200 largest food banks in the country, Feeding America (#3 on Forbes’ Top 50 Charities list). The organization’s new Collaborating for Clients initiative intends to “help clients achieve more stable and self-sufficient lives” through focusing on employment, health, and housing—a “revolutionary change” in the words of an administrator. One aspect of the project involves revising data collection—instead of focusing on the number of people served or the amount of food distributed, members of the network want to focus on helping stabilize people so that they are not in need of continuous help. The organization also wants to encourage collaboration between food agencies and other nonprofits that already do relational work.

These big national organizations aren’t the only nonprofits that are shifting their approach. Local community action agencies and independent nonprofits across the country—many of which grew out of associations of local churches, citizens, or national church bodies—are also using relational work to address poverty. Meanwhile, a rising host of national organizations that focus on empowering people in various ways to overcome poverty has sprung up in the last 20 years. For example, LIFT lets “members” set a life goal and then work to accomplish it with the help of an “advocate” who is trained to support that goal. Habitat for Humanity offers classes and meetings designed to ensure that new homeowners remain financially stable. Bridges Out of Poverty uniquely uses class co-facilitators, often from poverty themselves, to help participants make life plans and use resources to carry them out. Goodwill provides a training ground to develop soft skills and work habits through its stores, as well as services not directly related to work, such as youth mentoring, alternatives for high-interest loans, and training in other life skills, like parenting.

It’s worth noting that relational work to alleviate poverty is not all about upward mobility—many nonprofits play the simple but important role of providing stability and a community to low-income populations. Catholic Worker houses, day shelters, and church ministries, for example, provide a welcoming place for visitors or residents, and volunteers may informally befriend them and help them stabilize their lives if needed. These nonprofits are essential in providing a more relational safety net for those facing ongoing isolation and alienation, even if escaping poverty isn’t likely for some.

This approach also seems to be emerging in other countries, though the situations are quite diverse. The international Salvation Army, for example, is considering adopting some of the same practices as the Salvation Army USA.

What’s Behind the Trend

These nonprofits know the challenges of poverty and of leaving it behind. They witness the cycle of poverty in families and see their diversity close-up. Though many just need one-time help, others need ongoing personal assistance through case management or other programs, since they come back repeatedly for help. Instead of just treating the symptoms of poverty, staff members at several agencies say that they want to help people get out of poverty.

A Society of St. Vincent DePaul chapter executive director explained the shift by using the “teach them how to fish” metaphor, in contrast to simple handouts where there is no attempt to understand deeper needs. The CEO at one Catholic Charities location described it as a shift from “transactional” to “transformational” practice, and also a shift back to a time when private organizations played a stronger, more personal role in assisting the poor, before cash-based assistance became standard. One could also say that nonprofits are trying to shift from services for the poor to services with them.

An increased focus on “best practice” is also influencing current efforts; funders of these organizations want evidence that antipoverty efforts are working. Organizations certainly see results as they follow the lives of their clients, but organizations are gearing up to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs.

The Challenges and Promise of Relational Work

Of course, there are disadvantages to relying on nonprofits. Unlike universal government programs, some regions have more nonprofits and services than others. Nonprofits also vary in quality and may not always work together, leading to confusing overlaps in services that force those seeking help to bounce between different locations, and deal with varying policies and requirements. Because nonprofit funding streams are often inconsistent, individual assistance policies may also change frequently, adding further confusion. Critics see this approach to fighting poverty as a sign of a creeping “neoliberalism” that emphasizes market forces and strengthens work requirements, while placing greater responsibility on low-income populations.

The practice of relational work can also present some real challenges. Agency staff may be tempted to push clients too hard; ideally, their role is to facilitate or support. The Salvation Army, for instance, is trying hard to “walk with people”—to get them to consider changes without telling them what to do. “You want to hear from them how they want to change their lives and then help them do that,” said one regional director. LIFT emphasizes that the member, not the advocate, “takes the reins" while they “work together.”

Another challenge is that, unlike distribution without a relational process (as with a food pantry), relational work means that interactions are personal. Recipients end up disclosing their personal stories and travails, which can be hard to do. One agency we visit deals with this issue by having both clients and staff gather in a group to reflect on their lives and weaknesses in a community “self-evaluation” process, thereby modeling humility, forgiveness, and willingness to change. In general, self-disclosure can eventually be the start of a trusting relationship and a connection with needed mentors.

To tackle poverty, we need a multi-level approach that understands structures, cultures, and people in all their contexts and diversity. Many nonprofits have an on-the-ground understanding of how people struggle with the complexity of modern life, and how they face challenges brought on by changes in society, economy, and the family. It is often easier for organizations and their volunteers to simply give away goods or cash, rather than delve into the messy realties of people’s lives and work with them over the long term. This move to relational work is more complicated and time-consuming, but it’s also very promising.

Relational work can begin a long-term life changing process for people who often find it hard to take advantage of opportunities like better jobs at higher pay because of barriers, histories, or patterns that prevent them from taking advantage. Our economy increasingly requires that people be flexible in the workplace, understand more complex processes, and communicate and work well with others. As consumers, many people living in poverty aren’t prepared to manage all the choice and temptations in the marketplace, such as mortgages, auto loans, and cell-phone plans. Family instability and the prevalence of one-parent families present additional challenges, along with personal and health problems. As the examples above illustrate, relational work can help with all of these factors and is flexible enough to provide personalized assistance and help people build on their own strengths. The safety net certainly has gaps, but nonprofit’s relational work offers unique ways to help close them while contributing to the wider battle against growing inequality.

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