Can Nonprofits Look to the Past to Build the Future?

Nonprofits may be surprised to find that their communities have already implemented the kind of innovative, collaborative programming that their leadership — and funders — are looking for.

Can Nonprofits Look to the Past to Build the Future?
17 mins read

Past programs can hold potential lessons and positive legacies that could be revived or adapted to meet your nonprofit’s current needs.

Innovation has been a big buzzword as of late in the nonprofit community, perhaps as a result of that double-edged, trickle-down policy (courtesy of the for-profit world). Living and working in the Bay Area, it’s hard not to get caught up in the tech-world’s latest rebranding as disruptors ofvarious industries (however you feel about the validity of that word). But what if the most innovative—or disruptive, or whatever the latest creative rebranding is—strategy relied upon looking to the past for ways to improve the future?

No, this is not a suggestion of a return to simpler times. Rather, this is a suggestion that, a lot of the times, communities have already implemented the kind of innovative, collaborative programming that our leadership, and funders, are looking to effect in our strategic plans.

But wait, you might say. If a program failed once, it’ll probably fail again.

Let’s take a cue from the technology sector and disrupt this idea of failure. After all, just because a particular program ended, doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful. In the nonprofit sector, we know this: organizations stop offering programming or even close down all the time. Maybe funding/revenue streams dried up, maybe the community’s demographics changed (many communities suffer from disruption due to gentrification), or maybe the location of the programming itself stopped being a viable option.

On the other hand, sometimes institutional knowledge isn’t carried forth for whatever reason. In this aspect, we might reflect on the uncomfortable reality that nonprofit organizations sometimes operate a little like benevolent dictatorships (or perhaps more accurately, cults of personality). If, say, the executive leadership changes, the entire organization might shift its strategic planning (even overnight).

Zombies vs. Ghosts

In the context of our organization, ‘zombie’1 programs refer to outdated initiatives that continue to consume resources without providing significant value—they’re like the walking dead of our project portfolio, aimlessly moving forward but not really alive with purpose. On the other hand, ‘ghost’ programs are those initiatives from our past that were once vibrant and useful, but for various reasons, have been discontinued. These ‘ghost’ programs can be akin to the friendly spirit of Casper, holding potential lessons and positive legacies that could be revived or adapted to meet current needs. We should be open to the idea that these ‘ghosts’ from our past could inspire future successes, if we’re willing to listen to the echoes of their wisdom and learn from their experiences.

This is what my organization, Josh’s Heart, decided to do when it (re)launched Sacramento’s Homeless Connect in August of 2023. My organization, dedicated to the memory of my late son Josh, aspires to work with our unhoused friends to show them that they are more than their current circumstances. As a fairly small nonprofit, we mostly do backpack drives to help those who are experiencing homelessness as well as jacket and stocking drives during the holidays. 

But I knew we could do more, expand ourselves beyond the backpack and holiday drives. And the more I talked with people experiencing homelessness, the clearer it became that a whole host of services—like medical, dental, and vision screenings, haircuts, and access to California ID cards, to name a few—services we didn’t offer, would be critical to helping the unhoused people of Sacramento.

But we were just a small organization. And like most nonprofits, we ran up against the classic problem: there are never enough resources—time, money, people—to do everything that we want to do in the community. How could we even begin to tackle some of these real, material issues that affect our community members?

Reanimating the Ghost Program

It wasn’t until I heard of a previous program that things started falling into place. After all, the housing crisis has been ongoing throughout California for decades (although admittedly the pandemic and current economic situation has made housing even more inaccessible to our most vulnerable populations). And in fact, there used to be a program put on by another nonprofit organization where people currently experiencing homelessness could come to take care of a variety of different things at once. The Sacramento Homeless Connect was last hosted in 2015, but for some reason, the organization stopped hosting it.

When I heard this, I was floored. But more than that, I knew what Josh’s Heart could begin to work towards to expand from backpack and necessities drives into more holistic programming that met the true needs of Sacramento’s unhoused community members. It took months of planning and replanning as well as partnerships with a bunch of local and state agencies, but eventually it culminated in a 1-day event we called Homeless Connect.

Here’s What Happened

When our currently unhoused community members arrived, they were asked a few voluntary questions for the purposes of our data collection. Then, they were handed an orange bag (donated by SMUD) and a water bottle (donated by Sac State Sustainability) and introduced to one of our greeters, who explained the services available to them: DMV id cards, haircuts (courtesy of our partners), showers, and new clothes. 

There were also free medical exams—even vet exams for pets—dental and vision services (provided by more partners), and bike repairs as well as many representatives from departments of the state, city, county, and various nonprofits.

Of course, we also provided food: huge hamburgers, tacos and tamales, and coffee, all courtesy of partners. There was plenty of water, and reusable bottles, as well as free books with places to sit and read. Throughout the day, our volunteers milled about to collect any trash as well as pass out a constant array of snacks. One of my favorite things was the music, which really helped maintain the festive atmosphere we wanted to cultivate for the event.

I was ecstatic at the event our collaborative partnership was able to put together, but I think the real testament to the event’s success was the sheer amount of people who showed up. First of all, we had previously unknown volunteers randomly come in after hearing about the event on the news. But even more than that we had expected around 200 guests (maybe 300 if we were lucky) to show up to use our services—we ended up serving more than 350 people!

Here’s What We Learned

Even though the turnout exceeded expectations, there was still plenty we learned from it, both in terms of what went well and what we hope to do in the future to improve the event. Here are some key takeaways.

1. Respect guests’ privacy.

Obviously, it was important to our organization and to our partners that we understand a little about our guests, but we wanted to make sure they felt comfortable. Basically, we wanted to make it clear to people that this wasn’t us providing services in exchange for their information.

As such, we checked in with our guests: anyone who did not want to photographed or interviewed was given a white wristband. This made it clear to everyone who wanted a bit more privacy as well as who would be okay with talking to the press.

2. Connect your volunteers with the guests.

When people came in, we had greeters set up to say “hi,” ask the guest’s name, let them know what services were available, and then offer to walk with them. We wanted to create a fun atmosphere where we could show people around instead of leaving them on their own, and many guests commented how this made them feel normal. We wanted them to feel welcome, which we felt was especially important for communities with whom that is not always the case.

However, the way we had volunteers set up was also a learning opportunity. We realized later on it would have been helpful for volunteers to be wearing color-coded shirts (or the wristbands), so even if they weren’t walking with the guests, people would know who to go to for questions and support. We also realized that we needed a better understanding of our venue itself to see all possible points of entry and egress.

3. Connect your visitors with resource partners.

Much like the volunteers who accompanied many of our guests, we also wanted to make sure we could connect our guests with the services they actually wanted. While some guests wanted to be escorted to the various services, others wanted to look at these on their own time.

As such, we realize we should have offered a readily available list of all our resource partners to hand out to our more independent guests. This handout might have included all of the different services offered, with descriptions, as well as even a map of where these services might be found, both at the event itself and then their physical locations for future reference as well. In the future, we plan to make many of these flyers, possibly so that our guests can even take a few for friends when they leave.

4. Make sure you reach a large audience.

In order to get the word out, we set up a volunteer day the previous Saturday in which we went out to the encampments and handed out fliers with directions to the event as well as a free pass for public transportation. We also connected with other nonprofit organizations to pass out fliers to their clients. 

Since we partnered with California State University, Sacramento (Sac State), they graciously sent out a media alert on our behalf: a couple local news stations to our house two days prior to interview my wife and me.2 Sac State also posted the Homeless Connect information on all of their digital signs around campus and the digital billboard that faced the freeway. In general, we learned that universities, especially public ones in California, have excellent media access. If you’re looking to reach a wide audience, considering partnering with a local university!

However, we realized that an improvement to our outreach would have been more signs directing people to the event itself.

5. Think about how your visitors are getting to the location.

Many of our visitors use public transportation, so Sacramento Regional Transit provided QR codes for people to take the light rail or bus to the event for free.

There are two light rails stations near Sac State and the front of the campus is the bus hub for the area. We knew that some of our guests may have difficulties getting from the stations or hub so we hired a private shuttle service to loop around all day and pick up our guests at the stations or hub, then drop them off at the event entrance.

We realized we probably could have used an additional shuttle as well as considered alternate puck-up sites. We also think we might have provided more bike locks for those on bikes.

6. Consider the multiplicity of experiences.

In an effort to provide community services, we needed to make sure that we did not view our guests as a monolithic community but instead tried to anticipate their individual needs. We think we did a great job providing dental and optical services for those who might need that, but we realized, for example, that we also should have provided audiology services as well.

On the other hand, we also realized that some needs were a little more universal—like cell phones, for example. We definitely should have had power stations where people could charge their phones.

In considering the multiplicity of experiences, we also might have surveyed people beforehand to see what else would have been helpful. An outreach survey, for example, might have been useful in determining what other partnerships to seek out.3

7. Think of what your community has to offer.

Obviously, we knew we wanted to offer food, but catering a large event can be a whole thing (as anyone who has hosted a wedding will tell you). Instead, we went with food trucks—not only are they local and mobile, but they are used to the kind of festival-pace we were expecting.

And they were a hit! Many guests commented on the food, saying that that they weren’t expecting a gourmet burger or tacos and tamales—similar events usually offer more concession-stand food. But this way, we got to showcase local businesses and also offer delicious food—a win for everyone!

8. Don’t forget your volunteers!

We advertised for volunteers on the local tv station, basically saying if you wanted to come, we could use the help! However, we realize it would have been helpful to create a tiered system of volunteers as well as a master schedule or coordination document for all leaders.

Next time, we’ll use volunteer team leaders to help with pre-training and ensuring that all shifts have volunteers for them (as well as fill in the blanks). We also want to look into providing onsite daycare for our volunteers as well. We don’t want anything to get in the way of people being a part of this event!

9. Some partners won’t show up.

Unfortunately, we had resource partners that said they would be attending but for reasons they did not share with us, failed to attend. These services (like social security and a few housing partners) were vital to our guests, who were understandably disappointed that they were not available. 

In combination with my desire to have a more streamlined manual and volunteer system, I also realized that I needed to create teams to help with the planning. More specifically, these teams would have helped me in coordinating with the resource partners to ensure their attendance.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Of course, we’re not the only nonprofit to put together an event like this. In fact, we spent a few months researching what other connects were offering throughout California and built our event from there.

By not reinventing the wheel, we successfully hosted the Homeless Connect as if it were an event we had done before. In fact, we had several resource partners and guests ask us, “How come we never heard of this before?” And we would answer, “This is our first one.” Their shock was the biggest compliment we could have received!

Granted, we don’t know it all, but are learning. We’re already planning our second Homeless Connect. Come see us if you’re in the Sacramento area on August 10, 2024!


  1. See: ↩︎
  2. If you want to learn more about using community access television for your nonprofit, check out this article! ↩︎
  3. For more on how this outreach survey might look, check out this article on using community-centric feedback! ↩︎

About the Author

Don Nahhas has always had a passion for the homeless and would buy meals or help when and however he could. After the passing of his son, Josh, Don co-founded, with his wife Dawn, Josh's Heart in memory him. Josh passed away on August 12, 2016, at 32 years old from complications of long-term alcohol abuse. He felt ashamed, hopeless, and trapped by the hands of addiction.

During the time that Josh struggled with alcohol addiction, he found himself homeless many times. While on the streets, Josh always helped those around him by sharing his food, clothes or whatever he had.

This is the legacy Don and Dawn want to share of their son, Josh’s Heart!

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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