Joining Your First CBO Board!

By Ruby MaddoxBusiness people

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.

Gardening the Community Board Meeting
Gardening the Community Board Meeting

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.

Resources:

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Funding the Movement: An Interview with Kathy Sharkey of PDF

By: Ruby Maddox

Kathleen Sharkey, Director of Communication and Outreach for the Peace Development Fund
Kathleen Sharkey, Director of Communication and Outreach for the Peace Development Fund

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?pdf screen capture
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.

Getting Started in Community Service

By: Ruby Maddox

iStock_000016473597_SmallAdvocating 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.

Volunteer search feature on Idealist.com
Volunteer search feature on Idealist.com

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.

Why We Need People-based NOT just Mission-based Management Pt.1

By Ruby Maddox
Multiracial People Holding Hands in a Circle, Low Angle View
Many nonprofit professionals are familiar with the term, Mission-based Management; a term made popular by Peter Brinkerhoff‘s publication bearing the same name.  In it Brinkerhoff describes the cornerstone of Mission-based management in 3 core principles: 1)Nonprofits are businesses, 2)Funds donated to an organization carry an expectation of outcome/service, and 3) Nonprofits should not consider themselves restricted from making a profit, nor  should they be cautioned from doing so by their environment. (Brinkerhoff, 2009) .

He then goes on to describe the 10 characteristics of effective nonprofit organizations.
1.  A viable mission.
2. Ethical, accountable and transparent.
3. A businesslike board of directors.
4. A strong, well-educated staff.
5. Embracing technology for mission.
6. Social entrepreneurs.
7. A bias for marketing.
8. Financially empowered.
9. A vision for where they are going
10. A tight set of controls.

From an organizational sustainability context, this approach makes sense. An organization can not survive if there is no plan for the future or careful consideration on how the organization will sustain its work. And everyone knows you can’t start off your fiscal year at $0. While it’s true that community-based nonprofit managers must be diligent in their oversight to maximize resources, truly fulfilling the mission of the organization may run contrary to this “Return-on-investment-hyper-efficiency” philosophy; since an organization may prove to be less efficient but still very much effective.

People-based Management for Community-based Organizations
Whereas people-based management in business refers to an employee-centered viewpoint for greater and more long-term results, people-based management offers something more to community-based organizations. It represents an innovative philanthropic paradigm where steps are taken in separating the preservation of the mission from the preservation of the organization itself. It considers the perspective that an organization should NOT exist solely on the basis for it’s own survival.

People-based management in this sense, refers to the way in which an organization relates to it constituents, volunteers, and employees. It is the perspective that declares that each stakeholder is an activist in the organization’s shared endeavor, capable of applying their skills to advance the mission.
People-based management for community-based organizations considers several aspects :
•    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

People-based management for CBOs believes in the capabilities of every person to be a leader in his or her own way. Because Leadership happens in various arenas (not just formal ones), people-based management taps into that capacity, develops it, and applies it. It addresses the inequity in access to power and  considers the level of self-efficacy among stakeholders. There is an emphasis on relationship building not only as a means of networking but as a way of establishing trust and developing opportunities for further engagement to create a shared vision, based on that trust.

Many of the concepts of Mission-based Management are still quite valid however if adhered to in a vacuum especially in the matter of CBOs, there is a risk of the organization being conceived of as illegitimate, inauthentic, and ultimately irrelevant.

Part 2 of this series will discuss further what this concept looks like in practice.
Does your organization practice any form of People-Based Management?

Applying Your Global Experience to Local Nonprofits

Asian woman with chalk globe drawn on blackboard.By Ruby Maddox

Through study-abroad, Peace Corps, and global-service learning projects many students and professionals are taking advantage of expanding their horizons and increasing their skills through global-oriented opportunities. Their experiences are rich in cultural exchange, self-reflection, and renewed perspectives.

So what does this have to do with CBOs?

Since many of these opportunities often involve working with a foreign NGO/CBO, many of these participants look for ways in which their global experience might apply to working or volunteering at a local nonprofit.  While the experience of going abroad is often fascinating in itself with little else to compare it to, there are ways in which skills and competencies gained abroad can be applied to working/volunteering in a community-based organization.

Says Kirk Lange, Director of International Experiential Learning for the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives at Mount Holyoke College, “Perhaps even more important than skills and knowledge sets might be the insights students gain.  Understanding their positionality (often their power and privilege) and understanding communities as communities (by being a member of them and their collective efforts for a while) brings cultural humility and the understanding that each context is unique.”

Having navigated themselves in an entirely new environment participants gain a new understanding of their sense of place in the world as a result.

Brandon Blache-Cohen, Executive Director at Amizade Global Service-Learning notes, “The most important skills that a person learns while serving abroad usually involve flexibility and cross-cultural communication. We find that many of our alums honor nuance and better understand that community challenges are not “fixed” easily”.

As Kirk adds, “Another insight that can be gained is that there are rarely phenomena/challenges/solutions that are just international (and only “out there”) but rather these things are in unique contexts everywhere…and that the international and the national/local together comprise the global. These insights are critical in being effective in community based work (in successfully entering communities that may not be your own, in asking the right questions and together finding appropriate approaches).”

Gabriella della Croce spent some time in Nicaragua both as an intern for The Working World and later as a communications coordinator of Sostenica. Currently Gabriella serves as the outreach and communications coordinator for Gardening the Community a local CBO. When I asked Gabriella what skills she felt transferred from her international experience to her local experience she emphasized her intangible skills.

“The main thing is that it muted me. I think I’m someone who can talk a lot, and it taught me to be quiet and listen hard. Because everything was new I had to learn how to observe and absorb. I had to re-frame and shift my perspective on what defines “development”. It was a humbling experience and involved fighting a lot of assumptions I held as a young college-educated person coming from a background with a lot of resources. Being in a new context, you recognize things in yourself.”

VIDEO: How Radical Organizing Still Works for Community Empowerment

By Ruby Maddox

One of my favorite Community-Based Organizations is City Life/Vida Urbana (CL/VU). I wrote about this organization while still in graduate school.

City Life/Vida Urbana is located in Jamaica Plains, Ma area. The organization is true grassroots community organization “whose mission is to fight for racial, social and economic justice and gender equality by building working class power through direct action, coalition building, education and advocacy.”  The organization believes that by  organizing poor and working class people of diverse race and nationalities, they promote individual empowerment, develop community leaders, and are building a movement to effect systemic change and transform society.   Their tagline: Building Solidarity to Put People Before Profits

The organization works in 3 areas:

  • Bank Organizing: Post-Foreclosure Eviction Defense Campaign
  • Movement Building and Leadership Development
  • Tenant Organizing

CL/VU combines traditional grassroots techniques (door to door canvassing) with contemporary outreach strategies and employs them to stall foreclosures and further organize the community around these issues. Additionally they hold rally’s against big banking corporations like Bank of America, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, and employ volunteer attorneys to help advise residents of their rights. CL/VU’s philosophy hinges on developing people’s capacity to realize their own power. While CL/VU assist residents in staying in their homes, they operate several leadership workshops that give people the skills to advocate for themselves.

An addition to CL/VU’s innovative use of street organizing and social media (The group has its own YouTube channel), CL/VU also holds also a silver-level Guidestar Exchange participant rating, demonstrating their commitment to transparency.
If you’re interested in learning more about CL/VU you can go here and sign up to receive newsletters, volunteer, or intern.

How can your organization integrate radical organizing to achieve your cbo’s mission?