Thoughts on the National Circles program, and our involvement in it.

The following email was a bit of free form thought processing that stemmed from a dinner conversation with friends about Windsor Circle’s pending commitment to participate in the National Circles program (being implemented locally by REAL Durham, of which Mel Williams is an active contributor).

It involves us making an 18 month, bi-weekly commitment to a single family.  It’s a big commitment.  Thoughts below….

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Matt Williamson <>
Date: Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 7:53 AM
Subject: National Circles program
To: ——

Friends –


This is the program that REAL Durham program we were discussing last night.

It’s based on the National Circles Program.
Last night’s conversation was helpful in processing the risk we’re taking as a for-profit entity considering a deep commitment to a family.  As I was reflecting, I thought I’d capture reactions, both positive and negative, as we’ve talked about this internally and externally.
  • Positive Reactions
    • It’s nice to see a company making a deeper commitment
    • It’s a good reflection of who the people in WC are as individuals, and who the company is as a group of individuals
    • This type of commitment is what makes Durham’s brand of entrepreneurship unique.
  • Negative Reactions
    • You might not get out of it what you think you will.
    • Companies may not be set up to deliver these sorts of services, and this could lead to some degree of failure for both the family and the company.
    • This was top down / mandated.  Is WC doing this b/c Matt wanted it done?
    • There’s only 4 people involved in the core group.  What about everyone else?
    • The great white knight…  you think you can ride in and be smart and make change without really knowing the people or the environment.  Lots of examples of this failing at a massive scale.
As I’ve contemplated this effort over the last few weeks, I’ve wrestled with:
  • Why are we doing this?  What attracted me / us to this (versus more standard corporate volunteerism, or volunteerism at all)
  • What are the risks of a for-profit entity doing this versus a non-profit?
  • What’s my role?
  • What do I hope to get out of this?
  • What value am I giving to the family, to the team, to the community, to my company?
I’ve observed, broadly, the following perceptions of businesses and business-types at or near the intersection of poverty issues and trying to address them.  These observations are informed not just in this effort, but also at the helm of various Habitat efforts over the past 20 years:
  • Companies don’t do enough
  • Greedy
  • Too focused on numbers, not focused enough on people
  • Companies / business people aren’t to be trusted
  • When engaged in community effort, company’s have ulterior motives (mostly around taking credit for doing good in a community, even if the good isn’t that impactful, and especially if that token effort is being used to distract from negative community impact driven by the company’s business practices).
I don’t have the answers to much of this.  They’re just observations, and probably skewed as I am one person, with one set of experiences, and I don’t always get it right (I usually don’t get it right).
So, maybe to attempt to answer one of my own questions….  Why are we doing this?  What attracted me to this?
I’m attracted to the National Circles program for two reasons.  
First, the model is showing quantifiable success in alleviating the conditions of poverty.  It’s early.  We’ll see if these numbers hold, but I can’t deny that I’m interested in programs that can show real progress.  And I care about my community, and the people in it, so I was attracted to the effort because it could make a difference in my community.
Second, I’m intrigued by the level of commitment and connection being implied here, and that no company to our knowledge has attempted this.  There’s nothing wrong with the team volunteering once a quarter (and we do).  But this is about getting involved with a family in our community…  in my community… every other week for 18 months.  Not painting walls…  Not picking up trash…  (we do that already and are happy to do it more)….  But opening ourselves to what may be some painful introspection about the disparities in our community.  Being vulnerable during the training to be told just sit there and listen…  that your family leader is going to be smarter/better/more capable than you are at directing what will make change in their lives and in their communities.  To risk becoming emotionally connected to others who live very different lives, and wrestling with what that may entail in our own lives.  To deal with the unpleasantness of being perceived as a person of privilege that is doing this for the wrong reasons (this one is particularly hard for me to digest).  And, maybe, if we risk that much commitment, a family in our community may make real progress in their own journey.  And, as this unfolds, we as allies to this family might make real progress in our journeys as well.
I don’t know where this will go.
I’ve been a bit surprised by some of the negative reactions to attempting this.  On the face of it, one would think that a group of people, organized for whatever reason, who wanted to help implement a program that is showing real success in other locales would be a good thing.  There’s something about the fact that our group of people happens to be organized as a company (versus a civic organization or a church group) that seems to make people uncomfortable.  Maybe it’s in the way that I’m presenting it.  Maybe there’s an inherent distrust of corporations (and perhaps well earned).  Maybe corporations can be good at creating opportunities for its individuals to do good work, but that they are inherently poorly suited to engaging in that work directly.  I don’t know.
All this said…  entrepreneurs take risks.  I think we’re going to give it a go.  It’ll be an interesting journey, with an uncertain outcome.  But I’m excited to be trying, and I’m pleased that the people in my company are the types that would even consider it.

Author: wi11iamm

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