Community Still Knows Best

The Community Still Knows Best

The Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan record $46 billion pledge – give or take – has had tongues wagging since its announcement. People are excited. This is the largest single commitment to philanthropy in history. However, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will not be incorporated as a foundation, but rather as an LLC which gives the couple more control over how the money is spent. Many are calling this decision foul. It doesn’t follow the “rules” of philanthropy. Instead, it takes the responsibility for governance and implementation out of the hands of nonprofits. “Impact” is the reason these millennial philanthropists give for shifting direction. They want to maintain control to ensure the results they envision being critical to a strong society are achieved. I would argue that control belongs neither in the hands of the donor or the nonprofit, but rather in the hands of the community each desires to serve.

Several years ago, Zuckerberg and Chan made another large gift – $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey School District. They bought into the dreams of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who together aspired to create a model of excellence that every school district in the country would want to emulate. Today, most admit that there are few results to show for the money or the effort. The New Yorker wrote an in-depth article assessing what went wrong. In short, it determined the cause to be the lack of community input. Those in power and/or who held the purse-strings made all the decisions without asking those who were most directly impacted.

We’ve seen other recent examples of decisions being made at the top without consulting stakeholders. The attempt to end grants to Planned Parenthood by the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the decision to close Sweet Briar College are perhaps two of the best known where stakeholders stood up and said, “NO. You are not making decisions in line with our wishes.” In both these cases, the public’s outcry forced a turnabout.

In 2007, the Nonprofit Quarterly published an excerpted version of an interesting study by Kissane and Gingerich entitled “Do You See What I See?” What the researchers had found was that what a community identifies as being important is usually radically different from what the leadership of nonprofits serving that community identifies. The leadership tended to get it wrong even when there was agreement about the issues and the importance of each among the heads of many different organizations in that community.

The respected governance pracademic Dave Renz has long talked about governance happening beyond the boundaries of the board. He warns us that we cannot equate the board with governance. Governance is so important, he argues, that it will occur with or without the board. This concept goes for paid leadership as well. The two examples and the research noted above demonstrate that community must be involved in making the decisions that guide the organization’s actions toward impact. Those who fail to pay attention to this new reality are doomed to fail.

The Governance Affinity Group of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management created a governance framework, Community Engaged Governance™, that recognizes this. It puts community impact in the middle of a series of concentric circles, which, moving outward from the center, includes the constituency, board and staff, and funders. It does this to represent that impact is not only most important, but that all organizational actions should be aimed at ensuring it. Cognizant of group think, the creators of Community Engaged Governance™ understood that a variety of voices must be at the table to achieve real impact. Thus, the framework is designed specifically to bring representatives from the community into the equation not only to advise, but to make relevant decisions based on their unique experience and knowledge of what is necessary to generate the desired results.

Today’s technology makes this approach possible as never before. We can quickly analyze demographics, research the best assets, conference in whoever is needed in real time – bringing in expertise from around the world if helpful – and even provide instantaneous translation if necessary. Board portals such as Board Effect serve as a central repository for relevant materials, a scheduling tool for meetings, a place for different groups to do their work in confidence, etc. – all critical to providing the same pertinent information to diverse individuals on a timely basis.

Key to ensuring that all those diverse voices are on the same page, moving in the same direction, and making choices that will result in the desired impact is using mission, vision and values as a decision screen. Stakeholders might choose a “mission caller” for each meeting whose responsibility is to repeatedly ask their colleagues, “Is this option consistent with our mission?” “Will it bring us closer to achieving our vision?” “Is it in line with our values?” “How does it ensure impact?” Ultimately, though, it is everyone’s responsibility to ask enough questions to satisfy themselves that the suggestions being offered will move the organization forward in the best way to guarantee impact.

I applaud Zuckerberg and Chan’s desire, like so many of their generation, to demand true impact. But, while they – or any other philanthropist or nonprofit – can come up with creative ideas and substantial support for making a difference in stakeholders’ lives, involving the stakeholders themselves will always mean more success.


Terrie Temkin, Ph.D.

Terrie Temkin, Ph.D. is an internationally-recognized governance and planning expert, as well as the contributor editor of You and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers and Provocateurs. She is a founding principal of CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc., which interweaves business development, governance, board development, fund development, PR/marketing and public policy to strengthen organizational capacity. Contact her at 888-458-4351 Ext. 83 or