Guest Post: CharityChannel’s Steve Nill on the CDI Demonstration Project

The following is a post that CharityChannel CEO Steve Nill posted to CharityChannel’s Consultants forum this morning, as he considered the work we are proposing with the CDI Demonstration Project.

Because CharityChannel is only available by paid subscription, Steve had copied his post into the comments here.

After re-reading Steve’s thought-filled post several times, I decided I would much prefer to highlight it as its own guest post here.  As you will  see, it deserves that far more than it deserves being lost as Comment #44 in that prior thread!

Hildy mentioned my posting to CharityChannel’s CONSULTANTS discussion list. Not everyone is a member, and so I thought it would contribute to the dialog to post it here as well. Here goes:

I have been looking forward to having some time to think through what Hildy is asking. I finally do, and have spent some time on the communitydriven.org website this morning, reading and thinking. Admittedly, for busy consultants, it can be hard to grasp what exactly Hildy is doing, and we even wonder what any of this has to do with the day-to-day challenges of consulting for which the CONSULTANTS list was created. Still, I do think it’s a worthwhile discussion, because I think Hildy’s and Dimitri’s work represents a unique thought paradigm in our sector and, whether or not it gains sufficient momentum to become an accepted school of thought and from there becomes the lever that changes the world (for the better), it is fascinating and we cannot help but learn from observing and, for those who are captivated by the vision, maybe even accepting Hildy’s invitation to help drive the process.

To put Hildy’s question into context, I understand from the About Us page that the Community Driven Institute is in the process of filing for tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) organization. I was specifically curious about this aspect because I do think it’s important to know this, among other aspects, before trying to offer a perspective on the transparent processes that we (the “community”) are being asked to engage in (or to drive). It seems a more persuasive ideal that an entity envisioned as tax exempt can and should engage the public in its most fundamental planning processes than if it was “merely” a private consulting firm. Nevertheless, it is a leap; few nonprofits – sorry, Community Benefit Organizations (“CBOs”) – engage in anything like this kind of community engagement during the birthing process. Frankly, as a lawyer, my experience is that clients are rarely interested in discussing the role of the community in the formation, governance, or programmatic processes. At least I try; too many lawyers, I suspect, focus mostly on “getting it formed.” It’s no wonder. Even if they were aware of such considerations, they typically aren’t given the latitude by clients to discuss the role of the entity as a genuine CBO. In the real world, unless clients in persuasive numbers adopt the CBO paradigm and demand the understanding and support of their lawyers, there is no incentive for lawyers to try to drive the process and indeed, there is considerable resistance.

CBOs are supposed to be created and sustained by, and in important ways accountable to, the “community.” It is not so big a leap, then, that the Community Driven Institute, which laudably offers itself as its own demonstration project, is looking to the community in examining (driving?) a question such as “should we purchase this particular domain name?” It will be interesting to watch as this visionary demonstration project grapples with such weighty questions as “How do we define the ‘community’ from which the board of directors is selected?” and “Are we willing to have voting members and if so, from what “community” are they to be drawn?” and “What criteria shall we apply in creating our board of directors?” and “What processes shall we use to pick our board of directors?” Hildy and Dimitri address this on the website on the Board and Staff page, and, true to the ideals of openness, transparency, and community engagement, state that “the development of the Institute’s board will not happen as it normally does in start-up organizations. Instead, issues and decisions about board development will be discussed openly at the Institute’s blog, with the board’s composition growing from those discussions.”

I have to admit, I admire the work that Hildy and Dimitri are doing, and am impressed that they are using their own organization as a demonstration project that shows how a CBO should be created and governed. For this to become a movement, though, I suspect that we’ll need to see a number of additional CBOs created, and it wouldn’t hurt to have some already-existing organizations re-create themselves with demonstrable results. First, though, Hildy and Dimitri quite understandably are setting about proving to the world, if not to themselves, that they really do have a grasp on the lever that will move the world into a better place.

As for myself, I have always believed that the best way that I can change the world is by quietly working, year after year, to support those who are working for and leading nonprofit organizations, through my work with CharityChannel. I have believed that by helping to increase the professional competency of my colleagues in this sector, I am indeed doing my part, even if it’s mostly behind the scenes and out of the public view, in making things a little better. So, I am rooting for Hildy and Dimitri, for I understand their motivation at a very deep, fundamental level. If they are indeed pointing the way to a new way of conceiving of how we do things in our sector, in time we’ll see it reflected in the sessions at some future CharityChannel Summit, some future CharityUniversity webinar sessions, in articles in Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review, in other forum discussions, in a CharityRadio interview, in a book published by CharityChannel Press, and so on.

Oh, wait. One of the books by CharityChannel Press, Fundraising as a Career: What, Are You Crazy?, does mention the emerging term “Community Benefit Organization.” See what I mean?

Many thanks to Steve for his consideration of this effort. You can reach Steve directly at CharityChannel, on Twitter, or at LinkedIn.

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