The word philanthropy has got some negative connotations as well as positive ones.
While the original meaning of philanthropy comes from the Greek philanthrōpos, meaning love and humanity or love for human kind(1), today philanthropy is often seen as something else. Instead of altruistic act or gesture done in the name of love for humanity, the word philanthropy invokes the perspective of a separation of the giver and the receiver. In this perspective, the “philanthropist” donates his/her time or money to a cause or an issue that does not directly relate to or affect them. Instead, those who can afford the “luxury of giving”, give as a way to assuage feelings of guilt, without really caring about root causes or related problems. “Philanthropy” from this paradigm, recalls issues of race,class, and privilege. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said,
Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.
Philanthropy as solidarity can mean giving of your time and money to help create a counter-force to existing systems of injustice. This means showing solidarity in the public sphere as well as actively giving and participating to build the kind of systems we do want in our communities; consistently asking ourselves: “What kind of society do we want to build? and What is our role in that vision?”
This season, how can you use your philanthropy to show solidarity?
Social Innovation are a pretty big buzz word these days. Often linked with concepts like social entrepreneurship and social impact, social innovation presents new ways of thinking about effecting change that employs real and lasting results. Organizations are challenging traditional strategies, creating new partnerships, while finding ways to implement evidence-based programs.
“A social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just, than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”
Or as Geoff Mulgan states, “New ideas that work“.
The Centre for Social Innovation asserts that “Social innovation refers to the creation, development, adoption and integration of new and renewed concepts and practices that put people and the planet first.”
In 2009 President Obama announced funding for The Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which would combine public and private resources to grow the impact of innovative, community-based solutions that have compelling evidence of improving the lives of people in low-income communities throughout the United States. “The Social Innovation Fund (SIF) is a powerful approach to transforming lives and communities that positions the federal government to be a catalyst for impact—mobilizing public and private resources to find and grow community solutions with evidence of strong results.” – Corporation for National and Community Service.
Social Innovation in organizations incorporates 4 tenets:
Cross-Sector Networks and Partnerships
Conducive environments for new ideas & innovative thinking
Organizations across the country have received funding for projects that are not only forward thinking but offer cross-sector solutions for social problems. The Social Innovation Fund and initiatives like it have helped cultivate an environment of support for new ideas, impact driven results, and of social hubs of like-minded innovators and forward thinking change-makers. Organizations like Startingbloc, Social Innovation Lab, and Hive serve as both leadership development institutes as well as networking societies.
Why is it important?
In their article, “Social Innovation Creates Prosperous Societies,” Kevin Chika Urama & Ernest Nti Acheampong, write,
“Social innovation is helping to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems with new solutions…In the process of creating solutions, it is also profoundly changing beliefs, basic practices, resources, and social power structures….Many of the most important social challenges facing the world today require radical innovation that cuts across organizational, sectoral, and disciplinary boundaries.”
While I’ve always been interested in urban public policy and and civic engagement. In undergrad, I was always pretty certain that I did NOT want to work for the public sector. My passion was looking at alternative forms of community development and I was pretty sure municipal governance was entrenched in doing things one way, with little room for innovation. But today local governments like many non-governmental organizations are developing new strategies to tackle problems and fostering community initiatives that show results. These changes solve basic problems while transforming people’s ideas about what’s possible in urban communities.
How Social Innovation Can Help CBOs
Is your CBO Socially Innovative?
What means are you currently using to achieve your mission? Are there alternative ways that you hadn’t considered? What is something that is new in the approach? What is something that likely has not been done this way? Or been done this way in a particular location? What makes this particular method new or unique?
Cross-Sector Approach When I first started working in a food-related organization, I would go to conferences and see many of them same people. We attended the same events, had similar networks, and similar strategic processes. While this was great for resource sharing, benchmarking, and creating a sense of community, it didn’t build an emphasis on bringing people from outside the sector to who could approach the work from their perspective. In your work with your organization what new partnerships can you create with sectors you might not have considered?
Conducive Environment for Innovation:
Think of ways in which your organization can encourage staff and other participants to “think outside the box”. Resist the temptation to suppress alternative perspectives without consideration. Creating an environment charged with creativity and supportive of new ideas is a great way to get a diversity of perspectives and remain forward-thinking as an organization.
Telling our stories is important but knowing if and when we achieve our mission is also essential. Knowing how you’re going to measure your impact should be considered from the inception of any initiative or program plan. You should also have an understanding of how this impact will benefit society as a whole.
While Socially Innovative thinking can be a positive approach for an organization. It shouldn’t be the only focus.
Says, Vanessa Mason, senior eHealth manager at ZeroDivide, an organization that works to advance technology for the under served,
“Social innovation is a necessary approach for community-based organizations in light of dwindling material and human capital. However, don’t let it cause you to lose sight of your mission. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.”
The first board position I ever held was , naturally, on the board of the nonprofit I helped create, Gardening the Community(GtC). This however was not the first board I had worked with. When the project was still under a larger organization (NOFA/Mass) we answered to their board. It was the first time I really had experience in seeing how a board functioned. In grad school I learned more about board governance and stewardship, which came in extra handy as GtC began to put together its first advisory board.
I learned that boards were essentially the guardians of the organization and had a responsibility to the health and care of the org and its stakeholders.
Putting together an organization’s first board is no small feat. (Establishing a solid structure to the board eventually required outside intervention from a skilled consultant.) When putting together GtC’s board, we chose people in our community who had contributed in some way to the organization and had a sense of who we were and where we were trying to go. Some had served on boards before and some like me, were first-timers.
While it seems more people are choosing to serve on boards these days, many people still shy away from joining a board, believing that they take up too much time, are a waste of time, disorganized, require expertise, or are an unnecessary liability. I’m not going to lie, some of this can be true of some organizations (I’ll talk more about the liability stuff later), but it’s all about finding the right fit, after-all board service is just another form of volunteer/community service.
Why Join Serve? Board members not only watch over the organization, they increase the capacity of the organization. As we’ve mentioned, many, many, many times before, CBOs are often under-staffed and under-resourced. A good board can help raise or contribute funds to the organization, contribute or source in-kind donations/services, or recruit other volunteers. If you’re passionate about a cause serving on the board of a CBO addressing that issue can be a great way to make an impact, since you are enabling the organization to be more effective in their work.
Be Willing to Work / Be Willing to Commit Don’t just join a board for the status. Be there to contribute your time and your talent. Find out what the requirements are up front. How often is the board required to meet? What roles and responsibilities do board members hold? Remember, you don’t need to be the expert but you should be willing to show up, participate, and follow-through.
Board Culture is REAL! Every board has a different “flavor”. Some boards can be super conservative in their functioning and others more laid back. At GtC, food is ESSENTIAL to any board meeting. Since, as an organization, we believe in the value of good food and its role in our lives, there’s always an emphasis on providing and sharing food at meetings. (No cheese and crackers for us!) Because we also value youth leadership, at least 3 members of our board are youth. Since you’ll be spending a substantial amount of time with people on the board, find out if it’s the right kind of crowd for you.
Committee Yourself First Find out if you can join a board committee first. Board committees handle board tasks that are too big or complicated to be handled by the entire board and require a smaller more agile team to work on them. Committees meet separately from the board and work on small projects and submit suggestions to the board for approval. Committees are often made up of a few board members and non-board volunteers. Committee work can be a great way to get a sense of how the board operates and the challenges facing the organization.
What to Watch Out For (This is that pesky liability part). Some boards carry not only an ethical responsibility but a legal responsibility to the organization. This has largely to do with the fact that board members are stewards of a public resource. A public resource with a federal status designation. It is not their money they are managing. Therefore boards can be held legally accountable for mismanagement and maleficence. You should 1) Find out if the board carries Board of Director’s insurance. 2) Find out if there is a fiscal sponsor that holds this liability. 3) Find out how the funds of the organization are managed and how often the status of those funds are reviewed by the board, before agreeing to serve.
A good board should provide proper orientation for new members or at the very least be willing to seek out or offer resources to to new members to help transition them into their new role.
I recently interviewed Kathleen Sharkey, Director of Communication and Outreach for the Peace Development Fund (PDF). PDF is a public foundation that works exclusively with Community-based Organizations (CBOs). The foundation has been around since 1981 and makes small grants to community organizations with budgets of around $500,000 or less working on peace and social justice issues. Every year PDF open its doors to any organization that would like to apply and as Kathy explains, “We like to fund early and with small grants.”
What is your role at PDF?
As the Director of Communications and Outreach I do two things, which is all the communications for the org, but I also am in charge of a new initiative, which is our technical assistance training program. That is a program that just started this year. We have 5 orgs from across the U.S. who have applied and been accepted into what is a 3 year program to provide them training and coaching on fundraising, board development, and financial management.
How did you get started in this work?
Well I went to Mount Holyoke College, and after college I started working in the nonprofit sector. I did one small stint in the for-profit sector and immediately got out of it. I’ve been working for nonprofits ever since. I’ve worked in a variety of organizations, from schools and universities, to membership organizations, to museums, and PDF as well.
Why does PDF choose to work primarily with community-based organizations?
Very simply we think that change starts with the grassroots. It’s not something that’s imposed by a foundation. We don’t say, “We think you should all be doing this.” We make general support grants on issues where we think organizations have some traction, can get some traction, and start or make change.
What challenges do you feel community-based organizations face that are unique to their structure, leadership or missions, compared to national or large organizations?
Because CBOs tend to be small and underfunded one of the real challenges they have is sustaining leadership and sustaining volunteers. People tend to get burned out very fast because there are just too many things going on. From a foundation perspective, we really see that it’s important that we provide general operating support, not for specific programs. We’ve seen small organizations chase their tail around trying to create a program that a foundation is going to fund. Whereas we really believe that you, in the small org, you know the work that you need to do, you know your community, and you need some support to keep the lights on, and the fax machine going and the copier going and leaflet and do all that sort of thing. So we’re much more interested in providing small support, small grants where they can make an impact, rather than funding specific programs or established organizations. Although we do have special initiatives. We’ve had a criminal justice initiative, environmental justice initiative, we had a cross border initiative, all of those came out of work that we were seeing community organizations doing and needing to have some opportunity to network with each other on a national level. This is something as a national foundation we can do that a local community foundation can’t do. And we feel that we can really help them get to the next level with our training program.
What’s your organization’s Vision for community?
Well we believe in fairness for everyone. Fair living wage, healthcare, sustainable environments, freedom from violence, the ability to get an education, it’s really a question of justice. Our tagline is Peace through Justice. We don’t think we can achieve peace if people aren’t feeling like they’re getting a fair share. And a lot of the violence that we see in our communities, we think is a result of an inequitable system. So give us $75,000 and we can make a really big difference with 15 organizations nationwide with $5000 grants. Give us half a million dollars and we might be able to change the world. We can trace back more impact from our grants than some larger foundations because we work with CBOs.
What advice would you give to community – based organizations?
Hang in there! (laughs) It’s a really tough road ahead and a lot of community-based organizations can get so down in the weeds and into the struggle that the struggle becomes all that they are doing, and they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think this is one of the important benefits of being part of networks with organizations that are at a similar level. You can be inspired just by a simple or different way that one organization is doing something. And it’s so hard, I think, as a community-based organization to look out over that fence sometimes that you build around yourselves and see what else is happening on the other side of the fence. I think that’s another real benefit that PDF brings: with our grants and the desire to work in partnership with our grantees we can bring that national perspective. We can say “Gee, you should be looking at this other organization.” When I do our newsletter I’ll look at a whole bunch of organizations doing different things on a particular theme and try to bring that forward to our constituents as well. So as I would say hang in there, there’s no substitute for perseverance. And perseverance is what gets us through to the end.
Advocating for volunteerism and community service is a huge passion of mine. (If you haven’t noticed already.) The rewards are endless and its had a huge impact my life, both as a recipient and a giver. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be involved your community but didn’t know how. Perhaps you thought you needed some kind of previous experience or needed to belong to a group of some kind in order to participate in a community service activity. While this may be true of some opportunities, this isn’t always the case.
I write a lot about tips for community-based organizations. You’ll notice I’ll often point out the impact volunteers make on any CBO with limited resources. This post is dedicated to all you would-be volunteers out there, just itching to get out there and make a difference!
First, Why would you want to volunteer? (I thought you’d never ask…)
Volunteering can literally be one of the best ways to learn about and become part of a community. Not only can you learn about the work of the organization, you can also get a better idea of the issue(s) facing that community as well as those who benefit from the organization’s goods or services.
Volunteering can also be an excellent professional development tool; teaching soft skills like communication, self-confidence, acting as a team player and problem solving as well as hard skills like public speaking, software proficiency, or logistics planning.
Volunteering can help you become a better advocate for causes that you’re passionate about. Care about building healthy communities? Volunteer at a community garden. Concerned about urban poverty and social welfare? Volunteer at a soup kitchen or community resource center. Want to know more about public policy? Volunteer at a community action organization working on “getting out the vote” or grassroots organizing.
There are no shortage of opportunities available to get involved in your community.
Where to start? Think about what it is you have to offer. What skills do you already possess? Perhaps you’re in need of an opportunity that doesn’t require extensive experience, certifications, or skills (we all have to start somewhere). Next, think about the kind of organization you would like to volunteer with. Are you looking for something outdoors? Or would you prefer something at a desk? Do you need more or less structure? Is your specialty working with seniors or youth? (Keep in mind some positions will require a background check to work with certain demographics.) Lastly, think about how much time you are able to commit and be realistic. It’s better to under commit than over commit. There are volunteer opportunities that range from one-time or event-based needs to more on-going positions.
Organizations like Volunteermatch, Idealist, and Volunteen Nation maintain huge databases of opportunities with search tools that make it easy for you to find a great match. Even your local United Way may have a listing of community-based organizations in need of volunteers and suitable for your skills and time-frame.
Still the D.I.Y. approach can also work, as some organizations may not be listed on any database for various reasons. In this case you can simply find an organization you’d like to volunteer with and inquire as to whether they’re looking for volunteers. (You’ll rarely hear no.) Be clear about what it is you have to offer and the the time you have available. It may be helpful to have all of this information handy on a sheet of paper that you can leave with the organization, along with your contact information.
Remember… Be sure to listen carefully to what the organization’s needs are as well. Just because you’re offering “free labor” it doesn’t mean it’s the kind of help the organization may need at that time. There may be other indirect ways you can help. Be respectful and professional. Even though you aren’t being “paid” to do the job it doesn’t mean you should be any less respectful of the organization’s policies and environment.
Not all opportunities go smoothly the first (or second or third) time around. Your chosen organization may not have everything perfectly laid out for you or may take some time working you into the routine. (If they were perfect they probably wouldn’t need you.) Don’t get discouraged. While not every opportunity ends up being a good fit, you may find that others just need a bit more patience. Remember why you are there and be prepared to serve.
Much of the information we receive in reference to prudent nonprofit management refers to creating solvent organizations, that produce solid data, and operate with a business-like sense of direction. But people don’t always respond to organizations focused on financial efficiency (consider the Make-A-Wish Foundation). People don’t always follow organizations that operate like a business. And often invest their time, money, and energy in organizations whose greatest asset is their proven accountability to the community they serve and the vision carried by the organization.
My previous post discussed people-based management as an organizational strategy for community-based organizations to relate to their constituents, volunteers, and employees.
People-based management for community-based organizations incorporates the following principles :
• Community leadership training
• Opportunities for applied leadership
• Exchange of power dynamics
• Emphasis on relationship building and networking
• Prioritizing constituent agenda
• Meaningful & consequential systems of accountability
So how is this model applied in a Community-Based Organization?
Community Leadership Training and Opportunities for Applied leadership
Organizations like Lawrence Community Works,City Life / Vida Urbana (CL/VU), and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative incorporate leadership training into their community organizing. These organizations groom leaders from within the community to work within the organization. They also offer tools and resources for residents to act on their own behalf or organize their neighbors to make changes in their community. The organizations will often offer support for community-driven initiatives.
“ACE is anchoring a movement of people who have been excluded from decision-making to confront power directly and demand fundamental changes in the rules of the game, so together we can achieve our right to a healthy environment.”
Since many community-based and social movement organizations are often dealing with advocacy and access to governing power structures, the people-based management model focuses on altering power dynamics literally and psychologically. Incorporating this type of agency instills a sense of efficacy necessary in driving change and sustained activism. However, this shift in perception cannot be done absent trust.
Emphasis on Relationship Building and Networking
With a people-based management lens, relationship building and networking are about establishing trust and building a connection that creates a shared vision, based on that trust. Lawrence Community Works uses an elaborate community networking structure that is the cornerstone of their organizing work. For CL/VU, traditional door to door grassroots organizing brings in a vast amount of the organization’s participants.
Prioritizing Constituency Agenda
In a people-based management model authenticity is earned through the demonstration of commitment to the priorities of stakeholders. While a mission should not shift with each new agenda, leading with a mission that is irrelevant or redundant, or worse exploitative of its constituency ensures lack of confidence and trust in the organization. Building authentic relationships assists the organization in understanding what is important to its constituency, adding legitimacy to the organization’s cause. Organizations cannot enlist community members in their agenda without knowing anything about what matters most to them.
Meaningful & Consequential Systems of Accountability
While increased layers of bureaucracy and red tape can often overburden an organization seeking to be responsive, progressive and flexible, a complete lack of structure can be equally oppressive, as noted in Jo Freeman’s Essay,The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Accountability must be tangible and perceptible. Developing systems of accountability means to be intentional in the design of organizational structure. Building in constant self-examination led by a commitment to be aware and responsible for each interaction between the organization and its stakeholders.
Take an inventory of your organization. Are there aspects of the People-based Management model you’re already incorporating?
Community-based organizations, like many small nonprofits, can suffer from a crisis of leadership. Unlike large nonprofit organizations which may have a senior leadership team, the strength of the CBO may rest on one very charismatic and energetic leader. This leader directs the organization, raises funds, writes grants, gives speeches, and generates a budget for the board (and that’s just before lunch).
The ED can be the heart of the organization and in some cases they may even be the founder of the organization; running on pure passion and steam; seeming to make miracles (grants) appear out of thin air, focused and committed to the survival of the organization. While we admire and cheer on these nonprofit warriors, such organizational dynamics are highly unsustainable and can have dire consequences for the organization without the support of a vibrant and active Board of Directors.
Whether your board of directors is a formal board, working group, project committee, or impassioned group of volunteers, a CBO’s board can be the organization’s best asset or the makings of its undoing. Joan Garry recently posted an article on Stories of Bad Board Behavior that included everything from disengaged board members to board members extremely out of touch with the needs of the organization .
But choosing or building a board for your CBO can and must be done effectively for the sake of your organization and its stakeholders. After all, boards carry an ethical (and many times legal) responsibility to the organization and its community.
So how do you take steps to ensure your CBO’s board is responsive, engaged, and reflects the values of the organization?
1) Look for Diversity of Among your Members.
This includes race, class, age, gender etc. In essence don’t recruit all bankers and don’t recruit all homemakers. The more diverse your organization, the more nimble and responsive it will be.
2) Look for Folks Who Will Work.
Board contribution should go beyond monetary means. There should be a clear understanding among all members of your board that active participation is not only expected, it’s required. Which brings me to #3…
3) Draft A Board Contract/Agreement.
Even a board with by-laws should possess a board contract. Board contracts are an excerpt of the board job description. Unlike the description, the contract is a signed acknowledgement of an agreement between the board member and the organization on what is expected from both parties. You can find several examples of board contracts and agreements from Blue Avocado, Nonprofit Resource Center, and CompassPoint. Determine which is right for your board.
4) Draw up Your Organizational Values.
The organization’s values should be derived from the mission statement but should expand on them. These values should be non-negotiable, clearly articulated, and guide the nomination and recruitment process. A board member who does not recognize or understand the values of the organization is not qualified to make decisions on behalf of the organization or its stakeholders.
5) Be Strategic.
If the organization has a vision and a plan of how they would like to grow and/or expand their capacity (if they don’t then they should) , they must choose board members equipped with the skills to assist the organization in reaching those goals.
6) Audition Board Members.
Board committees are usually made up of a few board members and a few community members. These committees tackle projects too large for the board’s capacity alone. Committee can be the perfect recruiting ground in which to see a potential board member in action before nomination.
7) Have a Nomination and Recruitment Plan in Place.
The board should develop a predetermined method for nominating, screening, and recruiting board members.