7 Tips for Choosing the Right Board for Your Community-Based Organization

by Ruby Maddox

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. screen shot board contract
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.

Roles and Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards
Roles and Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards

Additional Resources


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?

An Urban Tropical Oasis

By Ruby Maddox

A few weeks ago I got a call to come down and check out a school garden at the Peck-Lawrence School in Holyoke, MA. Since my background in Urban Agriculture, it’s not uncommon to be contacted on topics related to urban gardens.

At first I thought it was a little odd to do a garden site visit in the middle of winter. Most school gardens in this area are pretty dormant during this time of year, but I went anyway. Boy, was I glad I did.

This is how I came to meet Gerardo Muñoz and his “El Yunque”.



El Yunque (named after an actual National Forest reserve in Puerto Rico) is the Tropical Garden project at Peck-Lawrence School run by, outreach worker, Gerardo Muñoz. Quite a few people pass through El Yunque, always commenting on the breathtaking view and the ambiance that Muñoz personally works to create. Upon entering the classroom space, the visitor is immediately transported into a tropical oasis filled with rare and distinct plants similar to that of the real El Yunque.


In addition to the trees and plants Muñoz displays different artifacts from Puerto Rican culture and refers to them throughout his presentation.  Muñoz believes that by creating spaces like El Yunque youth and other community members are given the opportunity to learn about various aspects of Puerto Rican heritage and the role the plants play in that heritage.

The garden has been featured in many local publications including Mass Live. The entire project run and funded by Muñoz, who utilizes donations from various community resources, to keep El Yunque going. Donations of plant pots, soil, plants, garden decorations, and monetary contributions are always accepted.

If you’d like to contribute to El Yunque or if you’d like to arrange a visit contact gmunoz@hps.holyoke.ma.us


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.”

How to Tell Your Organization’s Story

By Ruby Maddox

In my last post I discussed the importance of telling your organization’s story as stated by donors and one of the foremost leaders in philanthropy, Dr. Tempel.

Many fundraising experts like Dr. Tempel agree, fundraising is about building relationships and engaging donors. Donors tend to give where the feel connected. Building that connection takes time, cultivation, and a show of commitment to the values of the organization.

While many CBOs have dedicated staff that do amazing work for the organization it’s important to find ways to share the organization’s story to provide donors (and potential donors) a way to connect with the essence of that work. So here are some ways you can tell that story.

1. Social Media
This is absolutely a no-brainer. Most organizations already have, at minimum, a facebook and a twitter page, but what are you doing with it? If your audience is on social media use your account to post/tweet upcoming events, pictures from past events, articles related to your organization’s cause, and organizational successes and milestones. Since many CBOs may not have a dedicated communications person (let alone a social media manager) here are a few tips to get your org started.

  • See if there’s a way to divvy up the responsibility among a group of staff members.
  • Hold a mini-training session for staff and board  members willing to be a part of the effort.
  • Be strategic. Come up with a minimum number of posts/tweets per week.
  • Rotate responsibility among staff members
  • Have staff/board members submit content(pictures, articles,events, & updates) to a point person willing to post for others.
  • Don’t forget to discuss with your team what’s NOT appropriate to post/tweet.

2. Annual Report
Annual reports are not only a good way to tell your organization’s story, they’re also a great way to show your organization’s profile and demonstrate transparency since they also include the org’s financial information. Annual reports can be a way for an organization to really highlight its successes over the past year and illustrate the need that the organization fulfills. Not sure where to begin? Here are few resources to help get you started.

3. Newsletterconstant contact
Tried and true, a newsletter can be an excellent way to share your organizations story in a predictable and creative way. Most can be done electronically and pretty inexpensively through services like Constant Contact, Mail Chimp, and Verticalresponse. These programs are simple to use and offer excellent templates.
Plus, going electronic with your newsletter (or mostly electronic unless otherwise requested) will save your organization money and allow your audience to keep up to date on the most recent events and stories happening in your organization. You can choose to do a monthly or quarterly newsletter, depending on your org’s capacity.

4. Presentations
The opportunity to present the work of your organization doesn’t need to be one-sided. In other words, don’t wait to be asked. Put the invite out there. Offer to come and talk to classrooms, clubs/associations, church groups, events, etc. Put together a simple presentation that highlights the work of the organization and have it ready to go. If possible train several members of your organization to perform this task.
Your presentation shouldn’t be based around asking for money but building relationships. Bring materials from your organization to share and have a sign-up sheet for anyone interested in learning more about the org or joining the email list to receive the organization’s newsletters.

How does your organization tell its story?

Why Telling Your Organization’s Story Matters

???????????????By Ruby Maddox

I attended two events this past week both with the focus on Philanthropy and noted two similarities in the messages of these two events: Storytelling.

The first event was hosted by Bay Path’s College as part of their “Bold Thoughts in the New America”, Hot Topics Lecture Series. The speaker was Dr. Eugene TempelIndiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy founding dean, Nonprofit Times 2013 Influencer of the Year,  and a top expert in the field of Philanthropy.  Dr. Tempel shared a few statistics on the state of Philanthropy in America; including the decline in alumni giving in higher ed institutions and comparative research on giving among men and women.  He also discussed what he saw as the many roles of philanthropy among others, the reduction of human suffering and enhancing of human potential.

When a local community-based organization asked what their organization could do to increase their number of donors Dr. Tempel noted that it was important for the organization to find a way to tell their story. “The most compelling thing one can do is tell stories about the success of your organization…and how you’re making a difference.”
“Fundraising from my perspective is the difficult work of engagement. It’s figuring out how you engage people”, noted Tempel.

The second event I attended was one of the Women in Philanthropy breakfast events entitled “Donors Share: A Panel Discussion”, moderated by Katie Allan Zobel, President of of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. The panel featured four local donors: Sally Griggs, Amy Jamrog, Ellen Lindsay and Sarah Buttenweiser, all of whom discussed what inspires them to give.   While each donor discussed several things that had turned them off from an organization; not being in alignment with the organization’s values or receiving way too many glossy brochures, each panelists seem to agree that it’s a personal connection that drives their philanthropy.

As Amy Jamrog remarked, ” I love Facebook and I read annual reports. Love them! They tell the organization’s story.”
Sarah Buttenweiser, noted, “I give where I’m engaged. Social media is a great way to tell your story.”
Ellen Lindsey pointed out,”What motivates me to give is that personal touch from an organization.”
“What matters to me is transparency”, said Sally Griggs.

Next week I’ll discuss different ways your organization can tell its story.

As a philanthropist (of your time or money) What motivates you to give?

3 Youth Urban Ag Groups to get to Know in the New Year! [VIDEO]

By Ruby Maddox

When we think of Urban Agriculture, most people tend to think of community gardens; vast networks of gardens and gardeners in places like Boston, New York, and DC. When we think of Urban Agriculture Organizations some folks might recall Urban Farmer and McArthur Genius award recipient, Will Allen and his Growing Power organization in Milwaukee or the People’s Grocery in Oakland CA.

For many urban communities, urban agriculture offers sense of hope for what is possible in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, divestment, and health disparities. Urban Ag has become a tool for activism. It brings together communities to address issues of food justice , racism, and unequal access to goods and services. Rohit Kunar’s article, How Urban Agriculture Is Revitalizing Local Economies, cited the many ways in which urban agriculture is working to improve urban communities and our economy.

Getting youth involved in changing our food system is key to achieving Food Justice and creating healthier urban communities. Across the country urban communities are coming together reclaiming open spaces and using them to grow food for the community and encourage youth leadership. Below are just 3 organizations you should know about.

pfp youth imagePoughkeepsie Farm Project
(From their Website) The Poughkeepsie Farm Project is a non-profit organization that works toward a just and sustainable food system in the Mid-Hudson Valley by operating a member-supported farm, providing education about food and farming, and improving access to healthy locally-grown food.

Poughkeepsie Farm Project runs a program called City Seeds is an intensive educational program that trains future farmers; provides youth from urban areas with hands-on farming, gardening and cooking experiences; and produces and distributes regionally-adapted and open-pollinated seeds while sharing knowledge about seed saving.  Through City Seeds, young people have opportunities to engage in meaningful, skill-building work while learning to:grow food,save seeds make a difference in their communities and the food system.

Acta Non Verba
Located Oakland, California and started by Executive Director Kelly Carlisle, Acta Non Verba teaches youth how to grow and sell vegetables inside the city. All funds generated from the sale of the produce is then invested into bank accounts for the participating youth.

Gardening the Community
And of course, Gardening the Community(GtC). GtC is a food justice organization in Springfield, Massachusetts engaged in youth development, urban agriculture, and sustainable living to build healthy and equitable communities. Not only an organization, GtC is a community within a community reaching across a diverse demographic of Pioneer Valley residents to an urban oasis.

Tell Me about a Youth Urban Agriculture Program in your Neighborhood