In terms of identity, the most fundamental characteristic of nonprofits, besides our tax status, is our associative purpose. First and foremost, we are here to ensure that ordinary people have a way to come together around issues of common concern and take action. Yet, in recent years, relatively little attention has been paid to this central purpose—and especially to how civic engagement should shape our organizations. Dialogue about how and why our communities should drive our agendas has been eclipsed by transactional relationships with other institutions, particularly funders. Giving priority to institutional concerns over constituent concerns has changed who we are as a whole sector and, some would say, has weakened our influence, effectiveness and—by the way—our negotiating position with funders.

Nowhere has the apparent tension between our responsibility to interact deeply with our communities, or primary beneficiaries, on one hand, and our drive to interact with the world of power and resources on the other, been so difficult to manage than in the area of governance.

Perhaps the dichotomy between community-based and professionally based boards is incorrectly or too extremely drawn. Is the perception at all accurate that, to be connected and effective, one must have downtown players on the board of directors? The success of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) would suggest differently (see Gus Newport’s article “Why Are We Replacing Furniture When Half the Neighborhood Is Missing?” on page 10).

Over the years, we have heard many reasons and excuses floated to explain the lack of community involvement on boards, such as “They have too much else going on in their lives,” “We can’t count on them to be here” and “They don’t have the connections we need to raise money.” We have, in fact, seen many organizations recruit community members who soon withdraw from the group due to discomfort, or members who sit on numerous boards that represent that particular community. What’s missing in these situations, if anything?

How we perceive the primary responsibility of our boards provides a powerful first screen. Do we think of the board as a grouping of professionals who can provide services and expertise, or as a grouping of resourceful people whose first responsibility is to fundraise? However we view the group’s role, we recruit toward that intention. But will this lead to good governance?

For this article, we talked to a variety of people who are associated with nonprofit boards, asking them what they thought about the need for constituent involvement in governance, what mechanisms they used to ensure it, and what they believed to be at risk if it was not made a central concern.

The Role of the Board
Mark Lindberg, a senior program officer with the Otto Bremer Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, describes the ability of community members to participate in the governance of the organizations affecting them as the difference between traditional charity and a rights-based approach to community-based work. “From a human-rights perspective, programs that don’t involve and engage people in their design and implementation aren’t really set up to enable people to claim their own futures. Engaging community members in the governance of organizations is central to the kind of transformational work the best nonprofits want to be responsible for.”

If this perspective is correct, what roles do our governance systems have to observe as absolutes?
“The number-one role of board members is to act as a liaison with the community, to understand and speak to the issues in a way that sets the direction of the organization,” says Monica Herrera at the Wilder Center for Communities in St. Paul. “Boards are responsible for having the kinds of connections with their communities that allow them to pretty thoroughly understand the assets of the community as well as its problems and challenges. Board members need to take the time to participate, and they need to have a deep personal stake in the outcomes of the organization.” For Herrera, these desirable characteristics mean that community-based boards are preferable to professionally based boards.

Carilee Warner, staff and network development consultant for the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, describes the board’s role similarly. “When you are building or maintaining a healthy community, it is imperative that the primary stakeholders, or the residents that live in the community, have a strong voice in the decision-making,” she says. “The residents are essentially first among equals in the traditional resident/public/private partnership model board.”

But Warner does not consider community people serving on the board to be the whole answer, citing the necessary presence of a sense of responsibility for consultation with the community. This requires openness to learning that is antithetical to people who consider themselves experts.

“A good part of the challenge is to ensure that you have the ability to attend to the diversity of the community,” she says. “What really works is a core group of people that believes in common that it is valuable to embrace as many aspects of the community as possible, recognizing that everyone has something to learn and contribute. In my experience, boards of directors work well when there is a consistent concentration on increasing the skills of every individual member.”

“Governing is about learning, and learning together,” Warner says. “Nonprofit environments shift so rapidly that there must be a high value placed on adapting to new circumstances—taking advantage of new possibilities. The essence of our work is to ensure that the community we work with is able to pose questions and provide answers for themselves.”

Simply recruiting a certain type of person for the board does not fit the bill in terms of ensuring such an all-embracing learning culture. As with many attempts to diversify boards, those recruiting new members may not understand the insidious power of an existing culture, where a board assumes it already knows all or most of what it needs to know. This state is often invisible to current members, but glaringly obvious to members recruited for their difference. When the backgrounds of board members differ greatly from the daily life experiences of the community being served, this can show up as an arrogant objectification of community that blocks the organization’s ability to function productively with, and in, the community it is supposed to serve, according to Chester France, Jr., president of C. Whitney Group in Baltimore.

France says he was recruited for one local board because they were yet to have an African American. When he started to speak up, tension quickly surfaced. “My sense was that the board’s attitude was that they were here to do good for people who weren’t able to do for themselves and that the community needed them because they had the money and the power and could do things. But they weren’t really talking with the community.”

Che Madyun, a founding board member of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, had never been on a board before, but she had an enormous influence on DSNI and the neighborhood where she continues to live. “There is a big difference between an organization that wants a two-way conversation with the community and one that doesn’t,” she says. “If I sit on a board, I have to know that I am not being related to as a demographic, but respected as an equal participant who is there to teach and to learn.”

“As board members, we should always hope that there is someone in the room that knows more than us or disagrees with us,” Madyun says. “Boards should worry if their meetings are too agreeable—if the board is simply acting as an amen chorus to the staff—or if Robert’s Rules or some other mechanism is being used to shut down questions or dialogue. This kind of situation leaves too much room for decisions that can hurt the community. That’s when the organization becomes alienated from its base.”

France says, “The board I was on didn’t understand that community folk have a great deal of power that enables the organization to function as a part of the community. Not establishing the relationships in a respectful manner will create barriers that get worse over time. How can this be good for the organization, or those that it serves?”

“Constituents help organizations to float across rough waters—they can, among other things, volunteer for you, advocate for you, and help to direct you,” he says. “But if you don’t have a mutually respectful and productive relationship with them, how can you expect them to go to bat for the cause?”

Achieving this relationship requires an organization to establish a governance process that continually updates the board’s understanding of the community and the organization’s strategic position within it. In the groups we interviewed, there were an array of processes, both formal and informal, designed to connect clients, residents and other stakeholders to each other and the governance process.

For Jim Peck, president of the board of directors of the Welcome Center in Austin, Minnesota, as well as a minister of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Austin, the process for framing of the organization’s purpose within the community had a significant impact on its governance structure. The Welcome Center, which was started in 2000, grew out of a community consultation process in Austin. An increasing number of immigrants were relocating to the area to work at Hormel Foods Corporation and Quality Pork Processors, the town’s two largest employers. The center was to “help newcomers become fully integrated into the community,” says Peck, but he was clear that the work of the organization was not about narrow interests, but about the “type of place Austin wanted to be.”

In broadly defining the work of the organization in relation to the community, the board has accordingly integrated a broad range of people and institutional interests from the community. The current board includes people from many of the founding interests of the center, including respected members of the immigrant community, a Hormel representative, business people, a church representative, and executives from human service agencies. While Peck describes the board as “perfect” for the establishment of the center, he mentions that the board continues to evolve, with a particular view to involving a greater number of immigrant voices.

This commitment to constituent involvement is a good indicator of intention. But many organizations understand that it is not sufficient to simply have constituents as members of the board to ensure that the community is well represented.

For the District 7 Planning Council in St. Paul, community participation on the board was already mandated. “The charge of the organization is more about ensuring that the broader community of 17,000 people in the neighborhood is consulted,” says Kristen Kidder, executive director of the council. This meant ensuring that the residents were actively participating in the civic decision-making processes and that concerns in the local neighborhoods were brought to the appropriate city body. “To say that 12 people on the board can just talk off the tops of their heads and be representative of the whole neighborhood is not accurate. It’s unreasonable.”

The planning council had been operationally and financially challenged, and after a realization that the system was not working, the board concluded that something needed to change. They commissioned an assessment, and ultimately decided to seek a clarification of roles—particularly on the board—that enabled a fundamental shift in the way the organization related to the community as well as significant changes in the respective roles of board, staff and community.

Currently, the board’s primary role is to ensure the health of the organization, including its capacity to consult the community, rather than to represent the people of the community. The staff now manages the community consultative process. By separating the functions of the board and staff, the role of the community was strengthened and the council was able to move from a relatively small-scale consultative process to a community-wide process that connected community participants directly to the city government. The clarification of roles has also helped the District 7 Planning Council move into a more organized planning and development process that will help ensure its future effectiveness.

Several people interviewed for this story described situations where boards had little or no contact with the community being served, and were governed by corporate supporters and funders. In spite of their successes, they were described as “out of touch,” potentially diverting limited funds for the communities and sometimes crowding out others who were more deeply connected to their community’s roots. One interviewee described sitting on the board of an organization that served low-income people, but held fundraisers in areas inaccessible to and far removed from the community being served. While the approach was successful in terms of income, he described the organization as one in which board members and donors felt better about the organization than the members of the community it served.

As a program officer for a foundation that has extensive grantmaking experience in building capacity with emerging organizations, the Otto Bremer Foundation’s Lindberg believes that the challenge to ensure genuine community involvement extends beyond concerns over who can raise the dollars. “Our area is being blessed with the arrival of people from all over the world,” he says. “They represent different communities, each with their own traditions and sensibilities around issues such as leadership and decision-making.”

Funders, as well as board members from the dominant community, need to be more open to new models or styles of governance, Lindberg says, plus funders need to be prepared to make more grants for culturally competent board training opportunities. “Responding and adapting, while maintaining accountability, will take time, patience, and greater understanding,” he says. “On all sides.”