Thursday, July 30, 2009


One of the building blocks of nonprofit life is connection to community. The community and its needs are what nonprofits serve; in turn, the community’s support is the lifeblood for the nonprofit’s work. We know that the most successful nonprofits build themselves around addressing unmet needs. They offer programs and services to individuals that ultimately make their communities livable and sustainable.

Believing this, I’m always a little disappointed and frustrated when I meet up with organizations where the community (individually or collectively) is never addressed in mission statements or strategic plans, or consulted with in program development and evaluation, or used as a barometer of shifting trends or as a metric for success. This “dis-integration” from the public may have been the prevailing standard, particularly in the formation of cultural nonprofits, of another century, but it certainly holds no ground in the 21st.

The two big questions every nonprofit must answer are: why is it important that we do what we do? and who are we doing this important work for/with? For many organizations, these two questions seem to be the most difficult to answer.

Some hallmarks of organizational “dis-integration” are:

· board members hail from the same social set, similar professions or neighborhoods (staff and volunteers, too)
· vision and mission statements don’t address the two big questions – why? and who?
· stakeholder voices are not evident in strategic planning and resulting plans
· organizational plans that lack benchmarks for community interaction
· stakeholders have no regular role in programmatic decisions or program evaluation
· no vocalized recognition among board or staff that the community could/should have a voice in the services and programs the nonprofit offers to the public
· the “public” or the “community” is seen and/or treated as a monolith


howardlevy said...

You make some very good points that nonprofits would be wise to heed. I think another big question that seems to escape social service organizations is “What impact do we want to achieve?”

Providing various forms of relief services is a noble endeavor, however, it often overlooks the actual results that the organizations make on the populations they serve. Too many nonprofits cite the number of people they have helped as their standard for success, rather than the elimination of the cause of the social ill.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Great point, Howard, and thanks for sharing it. A lot of nonprofits talk a good game about impact -- include it in their vision and mission statements, as well -- but fail to develop the types of yardsticks that will help them measure their real impact. It's hard to do (much easier to simply count the number of people through the door), but it's critical to organizational decision-making and to external support.