When direct services contribute to social change

Volunteers and staff at North by Northeast Community Health Center’s community health fair, "Health on the Corner” | Photo provided by Northeast Community Health Clinic

Systems change. If you work in the social sector, you probably hear this term all the time — including from Meyer. Indeed, you'll see it mentioned throughout information about our Annual Funding Opportunity. In the Building Community portfolio, we are often asked some version of this question: "With all this focus on systems change, will you still fund direct services?" The short answer is "Yes, some." But that doesn't make for much of a blog, so let's dive deeper.

Yes, the Building Community portfolio does fund some direct services that help priority populations meet their social, nutritional, legal, health, employment and other basic needs. We don't see direct services as opposite of systems change; they can absolutely contribute! On the other hand, well-intended services that are designed in isolation could end up perpetuating the very conditions they're meant to address. Context is key. Systemic context. And that's why you'll hear us say that we're interested in direct services that are grounded by a systems analysis and tied to systems change.

We've seen this take shape in many ways among grantees that we work with, from small organizations to large ones. Rest assured, it doesn't always mean policy advocacy in Salem. (But that's great, too.)

Before getting into examples, let me pause to note that the "systems" we're referring to here, in the broadest sense, are complex networks of social, economic, legal and institutional forces that reinforce each other to sustain the concentration of power and resources for some groups over others. Upending these systems is multi-layered, long-game, collective work; no one organization has the full solution. But many organizations have part of the solution, and that's what we're looking for when we review applications.

For direct service providers, our first question is: How do you understand the problem or need that you seek to address? Why does the need exist and why is it unaddressed (or insufficiently so) for a particular population? If you're treating urgent symptoms, what conditions are creating them? What are the root causes? How are racism, classism or other types of oppression operating through policies or practices that result in inequitable outcomes? Importantly, how has the service population been directly involved in shaping your understanding? All of this understanding — the organization's analysis — should be evident in its approach.

Here are just a few examples of how we've seen this show up.

  • North by Northeast Community Health Center is a culturally specific organization that focuses exclusively on improving health outcomes for Portland's African American community by providing care and services that address chronic conditions disproportionately impacting this population.
  • Red Lodge Transition Services is a Native-led organization that provides housing in Clackamas County for Native women (from around the state) who are releasing from jail, prison or treatment — the only culturally specific service of this kind in Oregon. By securing public funding (to complement grassroots fundraising), Red Lodge has influenced the allocation of resources to Native communities that are disproportionately negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.
  • The Next Door provides a range of social services to families living on low incomes in the mid Columbia River Gorge, and it offers culturally specific services through Nuestra Comunidad Sana to support the Latino community. NCS programming evolves in response to community and includes support for civic engagement so that Latino/Latina community members can strengthen their ability to navigate and influence local systems that impact their lives (e.g., transportation board).
  • The Farmworker Service Center in Woodburn is part of the CAPACES network of organizations that share a unified theory of change and each work on different aspects of building a collaborative movement for change. For example, clients who come to the service center for help with immigration paperwork may also be referred to CAPACES Leadership Institute to build civic engagement skills.
  • Volunteers in Medicine Clinic of the Cascades provides care for the medically uninsured in and around Bend, Oregon, with an approach that includes differentiated, culturally responsive techniques. The clinic's executive director serves on the Central Oregon Health Council, where some regional resource allocation decisions are made.
  • In addition to providing food and other services, the Oregon Food Bank works on addressing underlying causes of food insecurity by engaging in policy advocacy related to housing and living wages.
  • The Northwest Workers' Justice Project provides direct legal services to immigrant, temporary and low-wage workers. Through its work with the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, NWJP also engages in statewide policy advocacy related to worker rights and protections.

What all these groups share, in addition to understanding systems driving the need for their work, is that they are connected with other organizations and institutions around them. None of them works in isolation; they know how their services fit into the local or regional ecosystem. Understanding community-level context is another aspect of being tied into systems change — i.e., if you are working on one part of the solution, who else around you is working on other parts?

The examples shared here are by no means exhaustive, but they demonstrate that, yes, the Building Community portfolio does fund some direct services. We look for providers who envision a world in which their services are no longer necessary, grounding their approach to get there and taking reasonable steps in that direction.

We're excited to partner with organizations that are occupying this important space.