I've been writing about my church lately. It's an important place to me. It's where I got married to the love of my life. It's where my daughter was baptized. It's where people cared for me as I wept over the end of my first marriage. I also talk about my church because I think nonprofits can learn from these interesting and complex places.
Last Sunday, we had a liturgy and celebration at my parish to welcome our new priest and mark the beginning of our new ministry together. Truth be told, I'm not sure we really knows what our new ministry is. We've never done a strategic plan - at least not since I've been a member. And, we don't have a marketing or program officer. What we do have is a community of pretty diverse folks who have been hanging out and hanging in with each other for a very long time. We also have faith (sometimes) that we'll figure it out - together.
It seems to me that what some churches get right (I'm sure this is true of mosques and temples too), and what many nonprofits get wrong, is understanding that the community rules. For example, my church wouldn't work if it weren't for the volunteer labor. An eleven member Vestry governs the church. A choir leads us in song. And, "office angels," meet every Tuesday to collate the weekly bulletins. In short, my church - like most - wouldn't "go" without the donations of time, talent (and, of course, treasure) which the members bring to bear each week. From both a religious and organizational standpoint, community is central to the proper functioning of our institution. In fact, the community is the institution.
This is a very different point of view than the one held by many nonprofit leaders who think of the community as somehow outside of or ancillary to their work. These organizations attempt to insulate themselves from the community at large, which leads to lots of problems, like staff burnout. It also creates a gulf between the needs and desires of the community and the needs and desires of the organization.
In their soon to be released book, The Networked Nonprofit: Using Social Media to Power Social Networks for Change, Beth Kanter and Allyson Fine talk about the challenge that many nonprofits face in embracing and connecting with their communities.
"Traditionally, organizations have viewed themselves through an organization-centric lens. Envisioning oneself and one's organization as as the center of the universe with other people and organizations circling around it - providing it with funds, attention, and volunteers as needed - is at odds with a world energized by social media and connectedness. Other organizations and individuals are not waiting for instructions for what to do; they're talking, doing, and connecting based on their owns needs and interests. Networked Nonprofits know this and are reorienting themselves to engage with individual free agents and organizations in their networks."Instead of living inside of our organizational bubbles, Kanter and Fine urge us to become more responsive, inclusive and representative of the PEOPLE in our networks. We can do this with or without social media. The important thing is to open the doors.
I think churches can teach us something here. Ideology aside, churches can teach us about the centrality of community. How we can no longer afford (figuratively and literally) to be the center of the show. How we can learn to be better facilitators of our common work. How we can work toward consensus and grow from asking and listening to the input of all of our members.
I'm not saying that it's easy. But it's vital if we want our organizations to stay relevant.
Communities need organizations to be successful. But they also need organizations to be more open, fluid and inclusive! Smart nonprofits recognize this and stop trying to control the dance. Instead, they mold their organizations to assist, organize, push, enable, and ultimately empower the community to do its' good work.
P.S. The title of this post is from a beautiful sermon by The Reverend Dr. Stephanie J. Nagley.