"How dare you craft programs that will change people's lives without having those people represented?" asks the board chair of a social service agency.
"You don't," she says. The by-laws of her agency require that at least one-third of the board members come from the community served.
It is a mix that brings both blessings and problems, but one she adamantly supports.
"The opportunity to engage, in a meaningful way, with the people you serve makes programs better. It is such a privilege!" she says.
Most of the staff and upper management of the agency are people who share the life experience of the agency's clients, says the executive director, a phenomenon that has striking effects on the culture of the agency.
"We put a privilege on life experience when we hire," she says. "It helps us keep attuned to the needs of folks ... To me, if you live a particular lifestyle, you can catch nuances that others might miss, you are better at pulling out issues."
"The program design is enormously informed by staff," the executive director says. "The culture of the agency is an 'us' culture, not an 'us/them' culture. If you speak in a demeaning way about clients, your boss may look at you and say, 'That was me a few years ago.' "
The results can be surprising, informative, effective and eye-opening, the board chair says.
The joys ...
Each member of the board and staff has value, the board chair says. Each has knowledge and experience that can benefit the agency. "You have to build a board that recognizes that [their] individual value to the board lies in the very differences they have," the she says.
She cites the time when several funders required staff who work with young people to be fingerprinted and, at the same time, agency leadership wanted to institute a policy that all new staff undergo a background check. For any social service agency that hires from a client base that was formerly chronically unemployed or addicted or mentally ill or undereducated, it is highly likely that some will have a rap sheet.
The liberal, white collar members of the board were incensed at this invasion of privacy. They vigorously and vociferously opposed acceding to the request.
However, former clients on the board and staff -- those whose checkered pasts would be brought to light -- just as vigorously and vociferously supported the new requirements. Background checks often bring up incorrect information, one argument went. Seeing the reports would allow staff members to correct errors and to be held accountable only for those things they'd actually done.
More important, perhaps, was the argument that the agency job was often the first job for staff members but it would not be their last job. By pulling up the information now they could practice dealing with the questions their history would evoke.
These arguments eventually won the day. The background check became an asset.
Another benefit of constituent representation on board and staff: Former clients actively involved in decision-making serve as role models for current clients. They create hope. If you know your counselor or members of the board were once in a worse place than you are, the executive director says, you know the struggle can be worth it.
... and the woes
The pitfalls of constituent involvement are several but surmountable.
- The two-class board, in which the constituent voice is seated but silent.
"[The clients of social service agencies] are different from you and me," the board chair says. "One of the issues is that we grow up learning how to manage ourselves in meetings, in discussions about policy. We expect people to value our opinions."
Clients do not have this expectation; they must be taught how to communicate their opinions and make a case for the policy they want.
Board members who have not come through the social services system must also be taught that constituent opinions are valuable, that they must solicit opinions and be ready to listen to views that come from life experience very different from their own.
For the most part, board recruitment is done by personal contacts, from people who have the strengths the organization need as well as the capability to respect all facets of the board.
And the client representatives are recruited because they can and do speak up.
- The justified but stultifying effect of admiration for the program and staff by former clients.
"It is really important that you have people willing to step outside [their role as client] and stand up for policies that are not consistent with those of the executive director or staff they admire," the board chair says. "The role of the board is to challenge and ask questions and make sure that policies are good."
- Reduced funding because part of the board does not have fundraising contacts.
Having one-third of your board members unable to provide funding is a sacrifice worth making, according to the board chair. "We have determined that it is more important to have the constituency represented rather than have a board that is only there for fundraising," she says. "It's a struggle to raise money and we don't always get enough."
But they do get something from everyone. All members of the board are required to contribute, whether a little or a lot. "There is no ceiling and no floor for what you give," the board chair says.
"This is protection for the soul of the agency," the executive director notes. "There are multiple ways of raising money but no alternative to having values locked solidly into the board."
... and the way to make it easier.
Funders need to value and reward agencies that have real participation by constituents. "The engagement of consumers in governance, that should get points on a proposal," the executive director says. Such participation makes the agency much more effective.
"Make sure the constituents are really active," the board chair adds, by funding board training specifically for those constituents. Funders are not very good, she says, at recognizing both the value and the problems of having constituents on the board.
"People who have been in the [social service system] are damaged in subtle ways," she says. "The boardroom can be an intimidating environment. Coach people on how to work in this board environment and lessen their ties to staff. Be clear about why they are important."
Incorporating constituents into the staff and the board is a way to live up to the values of the agency itself, they both say. The mission of social service agencies is to help people become productive, respected members of society.
"In a nonprofit, you have a picture of the way the world ought to be and you can create a piece of that world," the executive director says.
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