Last year I had an interesting conversation with one of the finalists at the presentation of the AIM Award for excellence in nonprofit management. I asked him about his organization’s approach, and he said it was a process of “peeling the onion.”
Peeling the onion! I was glad to hear him use this metaphor, because this has long been one of the ways I have described my own approach to human services.
Why an onion? Not because onions make us cry – although I suppose that’s not irrelevant. Rather, because they have so many layers, each of which hides the layers underneath.
In human services, we generally know that we’ll trip ourselves up if we don’t listen well. When nonprofit clients tell their stories, we try to listen carefully to the circumstances they describe and the needs they express. But that isn’t always enough. Often, we don’t learn what we need to know in order to be helpful, because we don’t know what questions to ask.
Years ago, at Compass Family Services in San Francisco, we were providing a broad range of services for people who were homeless. Early on, these were primarily crisis-oriented services. Even when we saw clients repeatedly, it was in an office setting, and even when we provided temporary housing, it was in rooms leased from others. Then we opened a transitional housing facility for homeless families. The apartments were new and beautiful. Free childcare for all ages was provided onsite. Counseling and therapy was available for all. Families could stay two years, and everyone had the support they needed to participate in employment and education programs.
Suddenly, the viewpoint of our staff was expanded radically. Families shared pieces of their lives with us 24/7. We learned that we had effectively “turned off the crisis” for most residents, but without that all-consuming preoccupation, other needs came to the fore. Families shared much more about their histories of abuse and trauma, their fears and vulnerabilities – including even, their fears of success. This changed our approach not just in transitional housing, but in all of our programs at Compass, significantly increasing our emphasis on helping clients to heal from trauma and abuse.
This was the first – although far from the last – time I saw that peeling the onion was an important metaphor for the learning and growth that must take place in healthy nonprofit organizations.
Taking a “peel the onion” approach makes us humble. After providing crisis services to thousands at Compass, we thought we knew a lot. But we couldn’t know what we didn’t know. I’ve now worked on homelessness on two coasts and in two countries – providing housing, employment, research, and a myriad of services. So sometimes I still may think I know a lot. But keeping an eye on the onion helps me to remember that what I don’t know is more.
Life has lots of layers. It’s complicated. We tend to see and hear what’s right in front of us, and not what’s six layers down. And it can be frustrating, when congratulating ourselves on our response to one issue, to find that there’s more below. But each time we adapt and change – each time we peel back another layer – we get a little closer to fulfilling our mission.