Civic Reach - Sustainability's Essential Partner

Saturday, May 1, 2010 - 16:15

Skill at fundraising and governance alone do not an excellent board member make. Nor do such skills alone ensure that a nonprofit organization maintains a connection to the wider community it serves.

A third skill – we call it “civic reach” – distinguishes a great board member from a merely adequate one, a world class nonprofit from one that is simply good enough. Civic reach compensates for the fact that nonprofit organizations function within the inherent limitations of the social sector, arguably democracy’s most critical, yet weakest arena. Social sector ventures lack the commercial sector’s financial muscle and the public sector’s power to mandate by law and levy taxes to raise resources.

Therefore, nonprofits need deep community roots to thrive, and strong linkages to people and leaders in government agencies and elective offices to operate at scale. The sum of every board member’s civic reach is the soil in which those roots grow and linkages form. Boards anemic in civic reach oversee organizations weak in civic relevance and resilience. Such organizations might have a range of funding sources and run well enough operationally. But they rarely find themselves plugged in to the civic power grid where decision-making currents define the cutting edge of community and inform a broader vision of place where meeting human needs at scale matters to the quality of life for everyone. Even with success, organizations deficient in civic reach often stand as capable orphans, unaccountably disconnected and alone, wondering why both the position and recognition they believe they deserve lie somewhere beyond their grasp.

Civic reach is a function of three factors in each board member’s makeup. These factors include personal and professional prestige, the accuracy and nuance of their local knowledge, and what each will deliver in the way of community-wide strategic relationships that position the organization they serve for success. These three critical assets – prestige, knowledge, and relationships – matter as much to the organization as attentive governance, outright donations of money and the ability to solicit gifts. Taken together and invested well, board member prestige, knowledge and relationships can produce monetary and marketing returns while elevating ordinary fundraising and routine governance into transformative stewardship.

Even while gauging new-member capacity for governing well and for giving or getting donations, board nominating committees should judge every candidate’s fitness for service on the basis of his or her capacity and desire to assert meaningful civic reach on the organization’s behalf. Nonprofits cannot afford to leave to chance acquiring this capacity. Nor can they assume that everyone capable of asking for money and governing wisely possesses equal civic reach. Stellar nominating committees know that highly capable board members rarely lend their service to organizations that neglect to value – or, worse, altogether ignore – board member reach as a powerful and manageable asset. The smartest board members seek and covet membership on nonprofit boards that know how to trade on their civic reach. Individuals with civic reach know that a board through which they can shrewdly invest their prestige, knowledge and connections on behalf of an organizational mission they care about will pay an additional dividend in the long run by increasing and enhancing their reach in other civic settings and on other boards.

Individuals with civic reach distinguish themselves through at least five distinct qualities, including:

  • Shrewd environmental sensing. They possess upstream knowledge about unfolding events and can position nonprofit program development and services at the confluence of opportunities to make positive change and secure the resources to continue doing so. Board members with civic reach sensitize the organization’s antennae to read and translate political, economic and societal signals into planning and initiatives that succeed and grow.
  • Advancement and defense of the organizational mission. When board members of impeccable credibility in the public sphere stand up on behalf of the fundamental driving purpose of an organization, decision-makers heed what they have to say.
  • Favor with key publics. Board members who have gained credibility with and/or effectively serve as representatives for important constituencies help the groups they serve relate to and successfully influence the same publics. The visibility, credibility and genuine commitment of board members with civic reach confers “local authenticity” on nonprofits. Time saved in establishing public credibility translates directly to money saved for other organizational priorities.
  • Inside access to power. Board members with civic reach kick open the doors of power from the inside out. When they want to, these board members can help place representatives of groups they serve in seats at tables where pivotal deals and allocation decisions get made about resources to meet constituency needs.
  • The aura and the actuality of influence. Funders and other donors want to invest grant and contribution dollars for maximum leverage. In nonprofit boards that have deep and broad civic relationships, funders and donors see confident achievers accustomed to getting things done in communities quickly and without fuss.

Alongside fundraising and governance, then, civic reach represents nothing less than the essential third leg of a nonprofit board’s sustainability platform. Organizational sustainability depends on both intimate local knowledge that can inform program direction and relationships that can connect programs and mission to communities and resources. No matter how good an organization becomes at fundraising and governance, absent civic reach it risks failure in the test of currency, relevance and readiness to flex and adapt as community conditions change.