Operation Nehemiah.

December 14, 2018; Chicago Tribune

Many small and mid-sized nonprofits have capacity needs that often go unaddressed because of a lack of resources. These needs are far-ranging and often include tangible programmatic components such as storage, facilities maintenance, and other spatial needs that many foundations and donors find unappealing yet are essential to delivering services. Since public contracts often don’t cover these types of expenses, they’re pushed to the back burner as fund development efforts focus on addressing funding gaps for needed staffing or filling structural deficits.

While some day-of-service models do successfully address these needs, many are annual events, and the needs far outpace the volunteer hours dedicated to such efforts. They also do not necessarily bring with them construction expertise. One organization, Operation Nehemiah, is seizing on the need for small-scale construction capacity building for small nonprofits and church ministries by shifting its business model and mission to meet these needs. This shift both represents an innovative and adaptive approach that nonprofits can learn from and reflects the type of thinking that demonstrates how resilient our sector is in the face of the absurd capital restraints that many people still fail to understand. (See NPQ’s story on the New York Human Services Council, “Everyone Deserves a Fair Slice,” if you haven’t already.)

Operation Nehemiah was born out of the desire of a group of like-minded individuals to use their construction skills and talents to help people in the Iowa area impacted by floods in 2010. The organization is based near Chicago and uses strategic deployment of volunteers to meet their mission.

A scan of media and a glance at their website will show that the volunteer model that Operation Nehemiah is advancing is working, and that their shift away from assisting individual homeowners to supporting multiple nonprofits is a big departure from how the organization functioned for years. Although the work was rewarding, a few years after the organization formed, key volunteers noted that they could be more effective by working alongside nonprofits and churches on building and rebuilding projects. Its mission is “partnering with individuals, churches and area nonprofits, working to rebuild broken walls and broken lives.”

Volunteers provide a range of construction services including renovation, improvements, and additions at all phases of the construction process, as well as offering design and planning assistance. Examples of regional projects include supporting the Cancer Support Center in Homewood with renovation and remodeling, completing a deck for Camp Manitoqua, supporting renovation work at a local Montessori school, and building multiple rooms of shelving and racks for Overflow Ministry’s clothing pantry at a local Korean United Methodist Church.

What’s unique about this approach is not only that Operation Nehemiah acts as a type of Rebuilding Together for nonprofits and faith communities, but also that their strategy for achieving their mission relies on convening volunteers with specialized skills on a consistent basis. While volunteers are the lifeblood of many nonprofits, with over 62 million people volunteering annually according to the most recent statistics by the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on Volunteering, most volunteering is episodic, meaning that it is inconsistent, occurs a couple of times, and is not regular. According to the BLS, over 90 percent of volunteers dedicate their time to fewer than three organizations annually, making the emerging volunteer model that Operation Nehemiah is fostering dramatically different.

Furthermore, through growing the effort organically, the organization operates at capacity; volunteers with Operation Nehemiah can be found every Saturday working on a project somewhere throughout the greater Chicago area. As the organization grows and takes on more projects, it continues to add critical resources that are responsive to emergent needs and build capacity for nonprofits and church ministries to serve their clients more effectively.

While volunteering is something all nonprofits rely upon, the model Operation Nehemiah is advancing can teach nonprofits, as well as those concerned about the efficacy of nonprofits in their community, something important about cooperation. Namely, through convening skilled volunteers that specialize in addressing specific needs at multiple nonprofits, this model illustrates an innovative way that nonprofit missions can intersect, and how that intersection can be fluid rather than static.

Operation Nehemiah demonstrates that integration between nonprofits can go far beyond shared administrative functions and embody a collaborative formula that is generative, mutually beneficial, and ultimately increases the impact of multiple nonprofits. This model and collaborative approach should be applauded and nonprofits should consider other ways that cooperation can lead to synergy between organizations.—Derrick Rhayn