Community Legitimacy: What it is, and Why it Matters.

Say the word “accountability” to most non-profit leaders, and you’ll likely bring to mind thoughts of board governance, of finance committees, board meetings and yearly reviews.

Or perhaps you think of accountability in terms of government oversight, or accountability to major funders. Or maybe you think of accountability in terms of transparency, your rating on Charity Navigator or Guidestar, services that grade non-profit organizations on how well they steward their resources.

All of these reactions are understandable, because in the day to day of leading a non-profit organization, direct accountability is top of mind. Or at least it should be, in a well-functioning organization.

But how often to we ask ourselves if we’re holding ourselves accountable to the communities that we serve?

In many, if not most, non-profits, those who benefit from the services you provide are not the same people who provide you with the resources you need to get the job done. Grants from major foundations, gifts from wealthy individuals, government support — these vital sources of revenue can sometimes seem a world apart from the realities of life among the communities we serve every day.

At best, this disconnect can make non-profit leadership a daily balancing act between what your community expects and what your funders and board expect.

But at worst, it can undermine your efforts. For without community legitimacy, truly achieving your mission can be even more challenging.

Community legitimacy – the trust that your community places in you to meet its needs – is the currency of non-profit leadership. The more you have, the more effective you can be. The less you have, and the harder it will be to achieve your goals.

The reality is, many communities across the country, especially low-income communities of color, have no shortage of well-meaning but ineffectual do-gooders, community “saviors” who ride in on a cavalry of promises but then just as quickly disappear, and downright hucksters operating out of less-than-altruistic motives. The end result is a deep cynicism, a belief that outsiders only come in to profit off the woes of their community.

To be successful, you must pay attention to the question of community legitimacy. A community that trusts you will be your allies. They will be there to volunteer, to make referrals to their friends and family, to rise to your defense when the going gets tough, and, yes, to donate not only their time, but their treasure.

But none of this can happen if you don’t overcome the cynicism that so often greets non-profit work, and build true community legitimacy.

We build community legitimacy when we hold ourselves accountable to the communities we serve. But holding ourselves accountable to our communities can be trickier than holding ourselves accountable to boards, or funders.

So how do we hold ourselves accountable to our communities, and thus build community legitimacy?

It pays to keep the following in mind:

  • Get real, authentic information. How is your organization perceived, among direct recipients of your services, and among the community at large? Surveys can be essential tools to find out. But we can go further. Spend time in the community. Be present in churches, community events and block parties. It’s in these informal settings that an authentic, nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities your community faces can emerge. Remember the old adage that 90% of life is just showing up? So, show up. And listen.
  • Diversity and inclusion at all levels. How diverse and inclusive is your board? Your staff? More and more, major donors are placing emphasis on these questions. But building a diverse and inclusive board and staff isn’t — or shouldn’t be — about satisfying the wishes of donors. The reality is, more diverse and inclusive teams make better decisions. And, importantly, a team lacking in diversity can very quickly lose touch with the communities you serve.
  • Build a culture of serving, not saving. As leaders, we set the cultural tone for our organizations. And the communities we serve pick up these cues quickly. Are community members welcomed as partners, or treated as “problems” to overcome? Are program participants treated with respect and dignity by all staff? Do we strive to be servant leaders in our communities, or do we think we must “save” our communities from themselves? The answer to these questions has a direct impact on community legitimacy, and, ultimately, outcomes.
  • Focus on results. Our funders, and our boards, want to see results. But our communities deserve results. As leaders our jobs are to deliver. We can’t be all things to all people, and we can’t change the world overnight. But our job is to ensure that we’re giving our communities our best efforts. We should be able to clearly communicate, both externally and internally, our main goals as an organization and how we’re making progress toward those goals. At the end of the day, if we can show success in delivering results that matter to people in our communities, then community legitimacy will inevitably follow.

Community legitimacy can be intangible, even elusive. But if we define it, understand it, and, in some cases, measure it, then we can lead our organizations toward it.

It all comes down to meaningful accountability. If we hold ourselves accountable to the communities we serve, and this is reflected in our attitudes, our decisions and our actions, then we will have achieved community legitimacy. Our organizations — and the communities we serve — will be better off for it.

 

 

 

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