How StepUp Ministry is learning to do good, better
by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
When StepUp Ministry called Steve Swayne to be its third executive director, it was already a strong organization.
Born out of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in 1989, StepUp (link is external)had grown from a small group of people passionate about serving the homeless into a $300,000-a-year jobs program committed to putting people back to work in Raleigh, N.C.
Over the course of two decades, this ministry had steadily built a reputation for doing good in the community. In 2008, at the beginning of the Great Recession, they helped 140 unemployed people find jobs.
Five years later, they'd increased that number significantly, helping 363 people find work in 2013 -- more than half of whom had criminal records. And today the organization has a $1.6 million annual budget with operations in two cities and plans to expand through a new organization, StepUp NC, in 2015.
By almost any measure, StepUp’s five-year transformation is an on-the-ground example of what it looks like to transition “from good to great.” But what does this sort of change look like in an organization? What makes it possible for a ministry to learn to do good, better?
It has become a truism in leadership that organizations who want to grow must embrace failure -- that we have more to learn from our mistakes than from our successes. Still, each of us lives and moves and has our being in a competitive, performance-driven culture.
Sure, the Fortune 500 CEO can say, “Embrace failure.” But most of us worry that someone else is going to figure out we don’t know what we’re doing. Maybe faith inspires radical self-honesty, but self-preservation says, “Don’t let them see you sweat.”
So what makes it possible for the leadership of a church or ministry to embrace self-honesty and move beyond patting people on the back to helping them become more than they already are?
Swayne says it’s trust -- something he learned at a church camp for youth where he and his wife worked after college. “Our goal was discipleship, so the question was, ‘How can you help kids grow in Christlikeness?’” The key, he learned, was to build trust with the kids. “But you’re not just becoming their buddy. From a foundation of trust, you challenge them to grow.”
A decade later, when he was running a publishing company, Swayne applied the same principle to an organization: if you love it, you challenge it to grow. But you do it from a foundation of trust, built in each relationship.
“When I came to StepUp, we had this great jobs program that people had built with their own sweat and tears,” Swayne said. StepUp was good at getting people ready for work. But Swayne noticed that when a woman on her way to a job interview stopped by to get a copy of her résumé, only the job counselor who had worked with her knew how to find it.
The system was inefficient. Often, that counselor was working with someone else.
“I’d call them on their cellphone, but they couldn’t answer right away,” Swayne said. “I knew our people deserved better than that. So we started to build a back-end engine to plan and track everything we do.”
What was needed didn’t require a huge grant or a revolutionary change in daily operations. Instead, it took careful attention to detail and the trust of each staff person and program participant. They employed software called Salesforce that was free to nonprofits; every staff person already had a computer.
“Today, we have an up-to-date file on 800 people, available to every staff member,” Swayne said. “If someone walks into the office needing a résumé, anyone can print it off.”
What’s more, when a StepUp employment recruiter sits down to talk with an employer, she can show him hard data on people who’ve proven that they can do the work when given an opportunity.
But a culture of self-honesty isn’t created by simply using a database, of course. Swayne said this kind of attention to detail is about taking people seriously.
Helping people who are unemployed set goals and evaluate their progress toward them is a concrete way of listening to them and building trust. At the same time, acknowledging the concerns of business owners and answering them in a language they can understand is also about building trust.
Trust is what makes it possible to build a diverse community of people committed to ending poverty. A good database, Swayne said, is one means to that end.
But equally important is what an organization does with the data it has. Beka Dominguez, who leads StepUp’s jobs team, says executive leadership has had to learn not to wait when people on the front lines say something needs to change.
Case in point: a recent reorganization of StepUp’s staff to better align with their strategic goal of moving every employee they place to a living wage
Swayne emphasizes that a culture of honesty depends on leadership that is committed to building consensus among a diverse team. Inviting new people into that conversation was essential to StepUp’s growth.
“When I came, 60 percent of our annual budget still came from the church where StepUp had started,” Swayne said. “If the community was really going to own this, I knew we had to diversify.”
As with any “helping” ministry, the biggest diversity issue for StepUp is economic. How can resourced people learn to listen to those they serve? At the same time, how might people in the vulnerable position of needing help ever trust that they can speak honestly?
“This is our biggest learning curve,” says Art Ross, longtime StepUp board member. “We’re learning how to learn from our clients.”
As a start, StepUp began hiring its own graduates. “We had this great jobs program with hundreds of graduates and hundreds of employers who’d hired them, but we weren’t hiring our own grads,” Swayne said. “We knew we had to start there. It just made sense.”
But the board immediately realized that employees wouldn’t necessarily speak freely about what they heard and saw within the organization. The board decided it also needed to hear from other graduates at the beginning of every board meeting. In time, alumni of the program started to join the board.
Listening to their own graduates again helped StepUp build trust and gather data. What they learned, Swayne said, has challenged the organization to grow in new ways.
“Here were our success stories -- people who’d been through our jobs class, held down a job and graduated from our yearlong life skills class. But they were telling us, ‘You can’t raise a family on $9 or $10 an hour.’”
The so-called working poor taught StepUp board members, staff and volunteers how poverty magnifies everything -- how a flat tire, for example, which might lead to missing an appointment, can be a tragedy for someone living paycheck to paycheck.
“We learned that we’re called to proclaim a living wage,” Swayne said.
So StepUp started to share this challenge with the employers whose trust they had won. “They know we send them good people. To them, we’re a really good pre-employment screening agency. So we’ve started to say, ‘We know you need good workers. Now, our people need a living wage. Let’s work together to see how we can get them there.’”
The honesty StepUp has cultivated is prophetic in its challenge. But it is firmly rooted in a trust that keeps everyone coming back to the table together. “I know this may sound idealistic,” Swayne said, “but I think we can tackle this issue in the business community. People … can learn to see that a living wage just makes sense.”
Years ago, before Swayne was part of StepUp, Art Ross helped facilitate a large contribution to the ministry from an anonymous donor in his congregation. Seeing the potential in StepUp’s approach, the donor wanted to help the organization grow.
“When I went back to tell this donor what we’d done with his money, I started to thank him,” Ross said. “But he looked at me and said, ‘No need to thank me. If this works, it will help me become the person I want to be.’”
With income inequality higher than it has been since the 1920s in America, StepUp’s goal of stability for all is daunting. Swayne is the first to admit that they have a long way to go.
But the gift of prophetic honesty within an organization means that the circle of those who have a stake in this conversation is ever-growing. Still, no one at the table is here for a pat on the back. If it works, they know, StepUp will help them become the community they want to be. In the end, that’s what prophetic honesty is always about.