Hey Mainstream Organizations, this post is for you — Do’s and Don’ts

I’ve been thinking about this post for most of the week, which is rare. I normally start to think about the blog on Tuesday in fleeting thoughts and panic sets in on Thursday night. This week I started thinking about it in earnest on Wednesday. This week’s blog post is for mainstream organizations that want to work with communities of color or other underserved communities.

As mainstream organizations, you have different responsibilities and burdens. Nonprofits are meant to serve. Some of you serve children, others save whales, or maybe you believe in preserving the arts. We don’t exist to make a buck and serve ourselves, we are here to provide a benefit to the community in some way.

I am defining mainstream as larger organizations, many of which are historically white led. Some ‘organizations’ may be departments of larger organizations such as universities or hospitals, or large nonprofits. There are many nonprofits that are poc led but still considered mainstream, just having a diverse staff and leadership doesn’t change the way the organization operates or culture and beliefs. All of this is nuanced and use your best judgment in figuring out where your own work and organizations fits.

Here is a list of things to do and not do when entering a community. It isn’t an exhaustive list, but some things to think about.

parachute panda

Do not Parachute in and Land on a Community. Occasionally, I’ll hear of the opening new program that intends to serve communities of color. The organization or program is well-intentioned and eager. Maybe they have a great track record elsewhere and want to expand so they look at where they think they can make a difference. In expanding they parachute in and proclaim, “We’re here to serve!” They bring in their program, their staff, and their ideas on how to solve a problem. They may have token listening sessions, meet with a few community leaders, make promises, but their program is already baked and the goals already outlined – essentially they could pick up their program and put it in any community and in theory it should work. No thanks to this approach, we believe in co-creating projects and programs and letting local communities have control.

You better stay for the long-haul, minimum 20 years. If you decide to open up a program in a community it should be for the long-haul. Mainstream orgs have an overall reputation for coming into communities and when budgets get tight or grant outcomes don’t meet the promises written by the mainstream org they make “a hard decision” to leave. Often the decisions are made in the isolation of an Executive Director’s office or a boardroom with little community input. The community is left burned and scrambling to figure out what to do next. If you are planning on entering a new community think long and hard about your sustainability plan and you better be willing to put a lot of staff time behind being willing fundraise to stay, there is no other option.

Invest in the local community by hiring local community members, including in leadership roles. If you do open, invest in the community by hiring from the community. Pay living wages and pathways for leadership growth. The hiring of local staff should be at all levels of the organization – including in leadership positions, not just the people at the bottom of the org-chart.

If the budget numbers become challenging, you better stay – see point number two. Set the expectation you’ll be there for at least 20-years or two generations. If you are entering a community of color your organization better put some serious staff time into fundraising and sustaining those fundraising dollars. When mainstream organizations enter communities and then decide to leave because they claim they are taking a financial loss I lose respect for them – especially if they aren’t from the community to begin with. I get it, money is never abundant, AND you better do everything it takes, put every card on the table, and knock on every door before leaving. Promises are too easily broken by mainstream organizations and there is little accountability to communities of color or recourse the community can take. Over time this is how communities are harmed. One organization closing isn’t a big deal but after a while, it becomes a pattern of mainstream organizations leaving is how systemic racism happens.

Partner first, no writing grants or asking for money without doing it with community backing. I get it, the funding-chicken-egg problem. Do you approach a community with no money but want to partner to get money, or do you get money then go partner? False choices. You build a relationship of mutual respect first then worry about the money. I’m betting you can find money in a budget for 20-cups of coffee and a few lunches. If you look at my work calendar it is filled with coffee and lunch meetings. I don’t even like coffee, but I hang out in a lot of coffee shops because the relationship building is so important, and honestly it is interesting. Get to know people, listen, and build a relationship of trust, not a relationship of transactions. The money will come when the time is right.

Be present, work to build trust and long-term relationships. Don’t expect the community to trust you, work to earn their trust. Many community members have experienced broken promises, unreliable services, extra burdens to participating, etc. We have no reason to believe your organization will be any different. Earning trust takes time, there are long histories and memories of systemic racism so you can spare a few months to build the relationship. It also means doing what you say you’re going to do and listening to the community, especially when they ask for something different. One of my favorite colleagues is a poc who runs a large multi-million-dollar mainstream nonprofit. Marko makes it a point to show up at many community events. Many of the participants know him and they tell him exactly what they like and don’t like about the programs. He takes it seriously and the organization makes course corrections to meet the client’s requests, and when they can’t he is honest about why. The clients don’t always like the answer, but they respect being told the truth. He also makes sure other leadership staff and board members are present and show-up. When I was on the board I attended a child care picnic, parent meetings, and it made me a better representative of the organization. Sadly, I think many mainstream board members have lost these personal connections and don’t always know who their organizations are serving

Be gracious, kind, and willing to adjust to meet community needs. As a mainstream organization, the burden is on you to be gracious and kind. Communities are under no obligation to welcome you. You may think you have something to offer, but if that offering comes with arrogance, a know it all attitude, or a desire to just come in and take – no thanks. Instead come in graciously and culturally appropriate and be willing to meet the community’s needs, not what you think they need.

By Erin Okuno

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