If you work in the nonprofit community, you probably hear a lot about programs — whether or not this program is working, a new program at another organization having success, the expansion or shutting down of a program. Programs are crucial to how we serve people; they provide structure. They save lives and keep people off the street. But on their own, programs can never provide true transformation. Real, whole-life transformation can only happen through relationships.
A person can receive our services day in and day out for years but never experience transformation. And when I say “transformation,” I don’t just mean a change in circumstances, like finding a job or a home. I mean transformation on a heart level. Without genuine relationships, we’re just meeting physical needs. That’s valuable, of course, but as believers, we’re after more than that.
I was talking to John Ashmen, president of Citygate Network, on the Real Hope podcast recently, and he believes there are eight components of life transformation (and they all start with S!):
If we are going to help people achieve all eight of these qualities of life (learn more about those on the podcast), we have to go beyond programs. There are so many people who need help; it’s enough to make your mind spin. The temptation to think bigger — more programs, more services — to help more people is always there, but to really help people, we have to do something counterintuitive. We have to think smaller.
“When we see such an overwhelming need, we naturally try to find a broad solution — but transformation happens through relationships,” John told me. I couldn’t agree more.
Relationships are the most powerful force for change in peoples’ lives. It’s known in the scientific community that loneliness can be very detrimental to a person’s health and that true connection is healing in more ways than one.
The Unmatched Value of Safe Relationships
“The emotion of loneliness is actually felt in the same center of our brain where we feel physical pain,” says positive psychology expert Jaime Weisberg. “So when we’re lonely, it physically hurts. It’s thought to be a protective mechanism, to keep us in connection with one another.” So it follows that the opposite of loneliness — connection — increases our wellbeing.
“When we’re in connection, we release a neuropeptide called oxytocin, which stimulates the ‘calm-and-connect’ response,” Jaime adds. “This is the antithesis of the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response. There’s a neurochemical process that unfolds when we’re in relationship to others that’s very calming. It builds trust, soothes our nervous system and helps buffer the stress response.”
Having built relationships with many people in the homeless community, I know their stress level is almost always high. They are constantly living in the “fight-or-flight” mindset because they have to be. The only thing that can truly counteract this stress response is genuine relationships.
The way we do this is by building trust with someone — being a safe person with whom they can be vulnerable. To be this kind of person for others, we have to practice being non-judgemental and attuned to others’ emotional needs, but most of all, we just have to be a friend. We extend kindness and compassion, and soon it will come naturally because we realize people in need are just like us. We all need help sometimes.
The Impact of Relationships on Social Change
When we build trust with others and form genuine relationships, new opportunities for change arise — especially when this is done on a large scale. Programs, as we mentioned, are certainly valuable as facilitators for change individually and systemically, but relationships tip the scale toward true, sustainable transformation.
We have to spend time with one another to build trust, build relationships and actually create change. The nonprofit StriveTogether is doing this by building relationships with the people they are trying to help and those who share the same goals for their community across all disciplines and political persuasions. By doing so, they’re actually making a difference holistically and systematically — from “cradle to career,” as StriveTogether’s tagline states.
StriveTogether CEO Jennifer Blatz quotes Rev. Jennifer Bailey of the organization Faith Matters Network, which supports faith leaders, community organizers and activists: “Relationships are built at the speed of trust, and social change happens at the speed of relationships.” Jennifer Blatz ultimately concludes that the relationships we build while trying to create social change are actually the result we’re striving toward — because from those relationships, everything else follows.
Start with One
So how can we put this into practice in our everyday lives? How can we put relationships first and help others truly find life transformation? One practical way is starting with one person.
“If you want to get really on a ground level, get to know one person — whether it’s somebody on a street you walk by every day or whether it’s somebody at a Mission. Just try to build a relationship,” John shared in our discussion for Real Hope.
You can take this approach to everyone you meet, whether that’s within the context of your organization or not. Just start with one person. Be available and non-judgemental. Ask questions and build a trust-based relationship. You might be surprised at how it not only changes the person you’re trying to serve, but yourself as well. It may seem small, but relationships are the most powerful way we can make a difference. Plus, helping one person can create a ripple effect that impacts more people than you know.