Nonprofit agencies are often stretched to the limit. It’s understandable, too, since nonprofit work is very demanding while resources are often scarce. As a result, something has to give and unfortunately, it is usually the one thing organizations need the most: the constant give and take between exploring, studying and developing a response to identified community concerns while keeping tabs on what has to be accomplished and whether there are enough staff and resources in place to get the job done.
A possible approach to an agency feeling stretched beyond its means during these kinds of planning processes is to reach out to people who are not members of the board of directors or the professional staff. It means opening up the exploration of issues to a set of fresh eyes by inviting people who have the potential to contribute new approaches to the agency’s response to the community. By cultivating the untapped social capital from people who represent different sectors of society, the quality of the deliberations will be enhanced and new perspectives will be gained.
This means opening up the agency’s decision-making processes to include those knowledgeable people who have an awareness of the community’s needs and/or have accesses to decision-makers. It can refer to people who have political influence or those who may be active in other aspects of community life. Inviting these different kinds of people who may not be official members of the board increases the scope of the agencies sphere of influence in numerous levels and sectors of the community.
For example, a neighborhood was experiencing an increase in the number of older people who were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The local community center was receiving requests to expand their day care center for seniors to include special programming for this demographic. How did the agency engage in a thoughtful, meaningful and comprehensive process to begin to develop an appropriate response to the families who were dealing with the challenges they confronted with their loved ones who have Alzheimer’s disease?
In this case, the agency’s president, the CEO (chief executive officer) and the Director of Senior Services began by drafting a “long list” – an informal list of active members of the community had some connection to Alzheimer’s disease, particularly those who were active in the field of gerontology on both the policy and practical level. After consulting with other board members and supporters of the community center, they developed a list of potential community members who fit this description and who they thought would be an asset to the committee task with planning the center’s response to the problem.
The long list included the following positions: the Director of the gerontology department at the local hospital, the Director of Services for the Aging in the municipal government, the President of the local chapter of the American Alzheimer’s Association, the Director or a staff member of the local community foundation that had a history of supporting innovative responses to community needs, donors who were involved in supporting the community center’s programs for its older members and those whose family members suffered from the disease among, among other potential candidates.
After the long list was compiled, the President and CEO reviewed it and narrowed it down to the candidates who had both knowledge of the disease and were familiar with its impact on families, as well as those who would be appropriate to involve in the agency’s planning process. As in all cases where people are invited to participate in a planning process it was crucial to include knowledgeable people who had the desire and ability to both participate and contribute. Thus, it was important to avoid people who were more interested in deciding what they wanted to see accomplished than those who would be able to join a journey with others to respond to the request for additional services to this group of potential clients.
The next step was to speak with the most eligible candidates to explore their willingness and availability to become members of this committee. It was essential that the people invited from the community not exceed the number of agency board members who were involved in the development of these services. When the President and or the CEO extended an invitation they were very clear that the invitee was being approached to serve on an advisory capacity to assist the agency in its deliberations. Ultimately, the agency board members were responsible for implementing the recommendations that were presented to the agency board and staff members, which is why this was so important to make clear [or emphasize] from the beginning.
There was no problem, either, in inviting a number of people to join the center’s process. Most of those approached were honored to share their expertise and experience with a community agency to help develop a creative approach to a growing problem. The center was able to identify what needed to be done and began to explore the potential sources of support including public funds and voluntary contributions.
In this case, everyone involved understood the challenges and was prepared to work together to find the best possible most cost effective solution to providing services. The process not only resulted in a creative way to develop a new plan to expand their services, but they were also able to “raise new friends” in the process. The community center was open to involving people who represented additional social capital and in the process was able to strengthen the agency and ultimately to better serve the outside community.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.