• Geri Stengel

    As a long-time advocate of learning from failure, I agree whole-heartedly with your distinction between posturing and real learning. Learning has to take place at the top and usually comes from the bottom — those served by the program. I also think that small can be beautiful, especially when trying to determine if a new method of doing something — delivering health care, awarding grants — will work. Small allows feedback and honesty that can shape more effective scaling. I think one of the best examples of open assessment of failure, corrections, and suggestions for better service is the recent self-assessment by the micro-credit sector. I think the lessons they learned can be useful to nonprofits of all kinds and the funders who support them.

  • Molly Clark

    I agree with every point made in this article, but would add a couple of additional thoughts regarding the financing of community-based initiatives. First, in my experience, so-called place-based initiatives are only likely to succeed when initiated by the community itself. I have yet to see a foundation-created community initiative that doesn’t disrupt, rather than support, indigenous goals and talents latent in low income communities (as implies above).

    Second, there is an even more glaring flaw in the business model of both typical community-based initiatives and foundation financing: in both cases, they fail to develop revenue plans that encourage the community itself to generate the financing required to sustain its work over time. Unlike for profit businesses, nonprofits focus almost exclusively on the expenditure of money, not its generation. Attention to both both what money will be spent on and how it could be generated as a function of carrying out the work would require a great deal more creativity on the part of both the community and the funder. In addition to soliciting *local* donor, business and institutional support, such revenues could include (as living examples) membership fees (especially fees from the community residents) or development of a market where trained and skilled low income residents could consult to local nonprofits (or even foundations) on how to improve program performance.

    If the foundation investment were structured in a way that required an increasingly greater “match” from such revenue streams, it could accelerate community change, assure that programs are supported by constituents (who would vote with their dollars), build the genuine self-determination of communities, and create direct accountability to the community for results. It would also equalize the power imbalance between funder and community, because each would have “skin in the game.” It also has the effect of changing the narrative on both sides: communities stop seeing themselves as supplicants and dependents (and we can get rid of horrible, destructive, patronizing terms like “vulnerable populations”), and foundations would be investing in the *generative* capacities of residents, rather than mere passive recipients of other people’s change.

    In short, by definition, social and economic equity will only be achieved when low income communities develop the capacity to generate, manage and evaluate the use of money for its own purposes. Current ways of financing social purpose organizations, particularly those focused on social equity, are seldom structured in ways that support such change, and at worst, actually undermine it.

  • Molly Clark

    I agree with the very good points made in this article, and would just add a couple of observations, particularly concerning the financing of now prevalent place-based initiatives in low income communities that strive to create social and economic equity.
    First, I am skeptical it is possible for such initiatives to achieve much when created and defined by foundations

  • sandy

    read this

  • Dianave

    I worked for a non-profit for the first time many years ago, and was horrified at the attitudes I saw demonstrated. The organization was rigidly top down and xenophobic — mistrusted other non-profits, FNs, people who worked for govt., activists. Also, huge egos seemed to be the norm.

    Funders were treated one way and everyone else another. It was incredibly middle class, as well, and extremely politically conservative.

    As someone who spent my adult life being a grassroots activist at some level, it was really shocking, and I still find myself feeling very suspicious of a lot of non-profits after the experience.

    I’m not familiar with the culture of the world of funders, but wonder how they’d feel about this kind of culture, and if their culture is similar.

  • Tom Ahern

    😆 Oh, dear. You’re taking this seriously?!? Community foundations have no noticeable impact. They are clubs for goodness, sure. And the staff are comfortably compensated. But rarely does something wonderful happen as a result. The biggest categories of giving are things like college scholarship aid and animal shelters. With rare exceptions: I’m thinking the RI Foundation in hot, successful pursuit of badly needed affordable housing, 2006-2008.

  • Chris McL

    Thanks for the great comments Dianave, Molly Clark and Geri Stengel. Very insightful.

  • Bill Bleisch

    Hear, hear. The question then is how to put this into operation, and scale it. Community-initiated place-based initiatives with intensive local involvement are great at reaching thousands. Can they be designed to reach millions without collapsing under their own administrative weight?

  • Nick Deychakiwsky

    So many good points in the article and the commentary. One thing makes me uneasy, though (and resonates with Dianave’s reflections a bit) is that it seems like “the community” is treated as a homogeneous entity. What about a community’s own power dynamics, its own social engineers who don’t listen to residents, its own nonprofit leaders who aren’t always truly reflective of the constituencies they are serving? Lately I’m hearing a lot more buzz among private and community foundations about the need to ensure the community voice is heard in local development initiatives and that communities not only “buy in” but “weigh in” (GEO’s stakeholder engagement effort illustrates this). I believe this is very positive. However, I am also hearing a lot of angst about how to do this properly, so that any such engagement captures not only communities’ grasstops but grassroots, so that all voices, not only the loudest ones, are heard and respected.

  • Ekoi – Okello George

    Oh my God! These are very wonderful contributions.However I also need to emphasize that if the community is not involved from the beginning to the end, not much will be achieved. I personally have this experience when we involved the community right from the inception, there was a consensus that they needed a primary school in order to address the burning issue of illiteracy in their midst.They donated part of the land, burned bricks, donated other materials and also offered free labour. Within a spate of time they had built a magnificent structure that was able to house the nursery and primary school wing.We were then able to enrol a number of orphans and other pupils that never dreamed of ever stepping in any class in their lifetime.This school is now producing the best behaved, God Fearing and clever children who have been posting the best National Primary Leaving Examinations year after year, thus causing an unprecedented revolution to the community. The community are now focussing on setting up a Vocational Technical School for skills training and transformation for those who cant proceed with their studies.

  • Matt Blanc

    Foundations throw around words like ‘learning organizations,’ but as soon as anything – grants, operations, etc., gets uncomfortable, the senior execs and boards look for a scapegoat – someone to blame for whatever happened. However, amazingly boards never look at themselves! The self-congratulatory attitude of foundation boards eliminates their abilities to be really self-critical or to learn from their mistakes. They would have to admit that they made mistakes, and as the article notes, it seems that it’s always someone else who holds the ultimate blame for a grant not working.

  • rick cohen

    Quite an important point, Nick! There is a long history among those of us from the world of community development about how to engage communities to “weigh in,” recognizing that there is rarely a homogeneously complacent and consensual community to engage. There are lots of ways of mucking the process up, but lots of ways–no one right way–for doing it correctly. But the point I draw from your comment is about philanthropy’s reification of “community.” You are challenging NPQ readers to ask themselves what they really mean when they say “community” and to recognize that in most communities (including the community of foundations), there is often much more heterogeneity than meets the eye, and as a result, one-size-fits-all analysis is usually sized wrongly.

  • swaruparani

    excellent work community involvement is great and beyond comprehension.One should learn lessons from this. Where the community is into educating their children this is a sign of progress.We should encourage this type of work.
    Wishing u great Success

    Swarupa 🙄 🙄