Confronting Poverty by Honoring Human Dignity

Up the stairs and around a corner, a hallway echoes with a child’s chatter and a mother’s hushed tones. Members sit waiting to get groceries, checking in with each other, and chatting with volunteers, who come to offer a hand.

A peek inside Chapel Hill’s former Town Hall reveals a vibrant network of staff, volunteers, and other community members who are squeezing every ounce of usefulness out of the space before moving into a new building next summer.

In April of this year, Inter-Faith Council for Social Service (IFC) temporarily moved its offices and food pantry into the historic building with their community kitchen. In spite of the current space limitations, all are fully functional and provide great support to the community.

IFC was founded by seven local women in 1963 and has since become the largest nonprofit provider of social safety net services in Orange County. It has also become a Community Development Capacity Building (CDCB) grantee partner of the Foundation, a partnership that builds the capacity of IFC to better support members experiencing experience poverty in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Last year Valeria Hernandez, a member of the pantry staff, participated in the CDCB learning cohort, which brings together young professionals from each grantee partner and provides them opportunities for peer learning, facilitated discussions, and professional development. The topics included training in leadership; collaboration; equity, diversity, and inclusion; interpersonal and relationship building communications; and innovation, risk taking, and decision making.

What Hernandez took away from it was inspiration and courage, fueled by conversations with other nonprofit leaders facing similar challenges. She also discovered practical solutions she could immediately apply.

“Talking to other people in community development nonprofits that have similar challenges was so helpful,” she says. “I now have a structured approach for innovation, with clear steps for trying out new service delivery strategies.”

The most tangible result of her experience has directly benefited IFC pantry members. Many take advantage of walk-in hours on weekday mornings—so many, in fact, that at times they’ve waited up to two hours.

To address this issue, Hernandez and her capacity-building cohort brainstormed solutions, coming up with a revised pantry layout that coordinates with the food checklist that members use to choose groceries. When IFC moved into Town Hall, Hernandez worked with her colleagues and volunteers to implement this plan. The change allows the pantry list to function more like a map, so it’s easier to find food items and, not surprisingly, takes a lot less time.

Taking the project a step further, Hernandez and her colleagues asked for feedback from members and learned the food list, itself, was more than a little confusing. They’ve now modified it, as well as the signs in the pantry, and added separate Spanish materials for those who can only read in that language.

While these may sound like simple changes, their effects are profound. They create significant impact largely because they honor the dignity of IFC members. And that’s IFC’s bigger purpose. User-friendliness for the sake of time is important, but for the sake of dignity, it’s priceless. IFC Director of Development Anna MacDonald says, “We’re honoring people’s dignity and their choices in the processes we already have in place.”

Part of how they’re hoping to do that more efficiently is by implementing more components of a member-choice model in the next year. This means shifting away from having volunteers shop for others to allowing members to shop for themselves. It also means listening to members through surveys and other feedback, and reducing the amount of information requested on intake.

MacDonald says, “The timing of the capacity-building training was fortuitous because it gave us opportunity to think of time in this temporary space as experimental, to make the process as member-centered as possible.” She says IFC will take what they learn while in the town hall and make adjustments accordingly in the new building.

With a network of more than 6,000 people—including members, staff, residents, donors, and volunteers—IFC will use these lessons to keep their mission front and center. And they’ll continue confronting the causes and responding to the effects of poverty in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community into the future.

IFC is a grantee partner of Triangle Community Foundation’s focus on Community Development, supported by our Fund for the Triangle.