A Culture of Working With…

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By John Welch, CFRE, MPA

Thirty-eight years ago a man froze to death on the streets of Raleigh. Churches, synagogues and people of faith were horrified – and concerned. They’d been opening their parish halls and classrooms, offering shelter, clean beds and warm meals to the homeless. They’d been overnight-staffing it with volunteers, cleaning up and clearing out in the morning and starting over the next night. They carried on, but a month later it happened again; another man, another lonely death on the cold streets.

It was a call to action. Nearly forty years on we better understand that while Urban Ministries is a creation of those churches and synagogues, it was the volunteers from those faith communities who felt something more needed to be done. Those heroic nightly efforts just weren’t enough. The community needed to organize to meet growing needs and service gaps.

Urban Ministries’ claims three service programs addressing crisis and hunger, healthcare and homelessness, but our volunteer program is what makes it all happen for our neighbors. That’s what we call our clients, neighbors. Words matter at Urban Ministries and words keep reshaping the roles our volunteers play in how we offer our programs, how the programs work, and the outcomes we pursue.

More than 1,200 volunteers serve each year in ever-evolving roles, increasingly providing a space where our neighbors are not so much offered a service as invited into a solution that they choose. We respect their agency and don’t encourage the dependency of anyone crossing our threshold. Working with gets better results.

Our volunteers are more than receptionists; they’re greeters providing a warm welcome and hospitality to people who would rather not need to come here. Volunteers administer our eligibility policies not to exclude, but to case-manage people into access to care. Food pantry volunteers serve as shoppers’ assistants.Medical doctors, nurses, PAs, lab technicians and other volunteers in our free clinic are encouraged to see patients as partners, because people are far more likely to get healthy when they participate in their diagnosis and treatment. Working with gets better results.

At Urban Ministries of Wake County, people are working with people, not doing for them. Personal investment in success matters; we invite our neighbors into their own care. As our organizational culture has evolved, the power of words and of relationships rooted in dignity and respect is no more evident than at the Helen Wright Center for Women. With 36 beds (and soon to be 75) for single, women experiencing homelessness, we for years were resigned to a success rate of 41% of women leaving our 90-day program with confirmed permanent housing. Recently however, the label “resident” has been replaced with “guest.” We couldn’t have predicted how the relationships between volunteers and guests would improve with such a simple word change, or how the self-image of homeless women would flourish. The shift in culture and accompanying labels produced a more positive environment for pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation and personal readiness-to-change.  As a result, we’ve witnessed an increase in the proportion of Helen Wright Center guests departing the program with leases in-hand to 68%.

Neighbors seeking food were once “clients,” but now they’re “shoppers” filling a shopping cart with what they know their family eats. Volunteers work with shoppers to answer questions, replenish supplies or help them carry their chosen groceries to the car. We’ve replaced half of our volume of high-sodium, high-sugar and high-fat boxed and canned foods with fresh fruit and produce and healthy frozen meat. Our food pantry continues to evolve into a Food and Nutrition Program. We owe its success to the Food Bank, to the Interfaith Food Shuttle, to food donors who’ve responded to our plea for healthier options and to volunteers like Dr. Robert Majors and the Rock Solid Gardeners, who supplied more than 6,000 pounds of fresh produce last year. These are donors who don’t just deliver what they choose to deliver, they work with us to deliver what our shoppers need. But our shoppers deserve credit too – they’re teaching us how to help better. Our service volume increased following the switch to client-choice and shoppers have expressed a preference for our service over other models. We know that nutrition is a social determinant of health, and foundational to other successes in life. Happily, it turns out that greater respect through word and deed can help us provide nutrition to more people – a strategy for public health.

Neighbors seeking care at our Open Door Clinic are invited to partner with medical providers and pharmacists to ensure their treatment works for their work and family schedules. Our pharmacy has been converting 30-day prescriptions to 90-day prescriptions – increasing convenience. By working with pharmaceutical companies and partnering with patients, our providers are responding to the life challenges our patients face to increase the likelihood that a treatment plan works for them. In partnering with patients (rather than instructing them), we find that they stick to the regimen and benefit from stable health. More than two-thirds of our patient-partners report using “less or no” local emergency room visits and reduced absenteeism at work since joining our clinic. Healthy parents make for stable families.

Our volunteers are important to our efficiency. More than that, by approaching our clients as neighbors, volunteers are building a community that takes care of its own. By inviting our neighbors into a solution with respect and dignity and by using words that reaffirm our belief in everyone’s intrinsic value and capacity for self-sufficiency, our volunteers are building a culture of caring that speaks to the capacity of humans to work with each other toward a brighter future for all.


John C. Welch, CFRE, MPA is the Development Director for Urban Ministries of Wake County; Board President for the Association of Fundraising Professionals – Triangle; and Co-founder and Board Vice Chair of The Cold War Museum.

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