Lessons from the Street: Capacity Building and Replication

2. Qualities of Success

What are qualities of grassroots nonprofit inner city organizations that make for success? If we can answer this question, we can compare any grassroots, nonprofit organization to the ideal, decide what may be lacking in the organization, and create a technical assistance plan to move the organization closer to the ideal.

Model grassroots, nonprofit organizations are not just based on good program ideas. Our experience has taught that at least as important is the presence of a clear, outcome driven mission associated with strong board and staff leadership; skill in generating multiple income streams; competent financial and organizational management; quality, flexible and tenacious staff members who are given the opportunity for personal development; and ability to use the media to further the organization and promote leadership. Consider each of these qualities:

A Clear Mission and Sound Leadership
Successful grassroots, nonprofit organizations have clearly defined missions based on measurable outcomes. The operating head of the agency and the board of directors work well together and understand the role of evaluation in defining the mission. The operating head is respected by the board and the staff. Typically, the founder of a successful grassroots, nonprofit organization works long hours and has a strong work ethic, intense commitment, cultural sensitivity and considerable fundraising and political skill. Such executive directors are empathic with and well-informed about the people served by the nonprofit and communicates well with fellow staff-members, inspiring staff to work as hard as they do.

Skill in Generating Multiple Income Streams
In part because funders have recognized a clear mission, sound leadership, good ideas, multiple solutions, flexibility and competent management, successful or promising community-based nonprofits are able to secure at least minimal funding year after year. This is "soft money," because grassroots nonprofits rarely are endowed.

Such programs typically have learned to keep a balanced portfolio of public and private funders. They have staff, consultants or trustees who can locate announcements of fund availability and write good proposals. They mix restricted funding with unrestricted funding from private donors, special events and sometimes for-profit income streams.

Successes like Delancey Street in San Francisco create business-like and for-profit ventures linked to nonprofit programs. Delancey Street is able to involve participants in business ventures -- in part because Delancey Street participants are not thirteen year olds who still need to focus on school, but adult ex-offenders who, if they can be turned around, are more ready for steady employment.1 Other nonprofit organizations involved with human development, like the Mid-Bronx Desperados Community Housing Corporation in New York, have integrated youth programs into economic development initiatives, and have generated income streams from the economic development -- for example, through housing syndication.2

Still, even the most successful grassroots nonprofits experience funding as a constant problem and have their bad times. Much of the reason is that such nonprofits are not sufficiently recognized by citizens as cost-effective investors in human capital. In turn, funding from the public and private sectors remain minuscule compared to what is needed nationally.

Competent Management
One stereotype of the inner city grassroots nonprofit organizations responsible for so much of what works is that they are begun by charismatic leaders who cannot manage. There is some truth to this, and many nonprofits, especially in youth development and human services, fail because of poor management. However, successful organizations have competent chief financial officers to manage grants and contracts. Many successes have the resources for executive vice presidents who manage day-to-day, while the leader provides vision, develops new ideas and raises funds with the board. Good management helps generate good performance, which attracts more funds. More funds increase the resources available for bringing on good managers. It is a two-way relationship.

Effective Staff
In successful grassroots programs, staff are selected for their expertise and typically come from the same background and communities as persons in their program. Senior staff often have been at the organization for many years. These staff members understand that multiple solutions and outcomes cannot be routine or uniform. Variation is needed to fit individual needs of children, young people and adults. Staff feel they are wanted because of a supportive atmosphere. This facilitates participation by staff and the development of their leadership skills.

To deal with more traditional funding bureaucracies, staff need to be dedicated and tenacious. The founders of the Argus Community in the South Bronx and Delancey Street in San Francisco, for example, have been at it for over a quarter century.3 Staff members often devise innovative plots and schemes to tunnel under or circle around the rules and regulations of more traditional bureaucracies that provide funds. Those bureaucracies tend to be narrow and categorical -- so at times they must be manipulated if the community groups are to come up with funding for the comprehensive interventions and multiple solutions that work best. To do all of this usually requires attention to mundane, day-to-day detail. Staff at successful organizations have considerable patience.

Such staff have opportunities for renewal and development -- although, typically, they would like time for much more. There often are regular, weekly staff development meetings, as is the case at Argus, where staff share their feelings, aspirations, triumphs and frustrations. Staff have access to professional development networks, and they exchange good practices at meetings and workshops with peers outside their organizations.

Mastery of the Media and Communications Technology
The media can be used to publicize a grassroots organization. The result can be education of the public that the program works. Such knowledge can be leveraged into political action, legislation and public funding for the program, and programs like it. It also can make private funders more aware of the success, and increase their support. For example, Delancey Street has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt, ABC’s 20/20 and hosts of other national and local elections and print media stories. As a result of Delancey’s program success and media skill, its founder was given the lead by the Mayor of San Francisco in reforming the city’s juvenile justice system. Major banks helped finance construction of the Delancey Street residential and commercial complex on the Embarcadero.4 Another example is the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Boston, where program youth appear in public service announcements and commercials, frequent talk shows, have produced Blockbuster community service videos and were financed by Hollywood for a limited distribution motion picture, Squeeze.5 Not only can media capacity share the word, but it can develop the leadership skills of nonprofit staff and program participants, as the Boston program has demonstrated.

Based on these qualities of success, how can technical assisters at the national, regional and local levels enhance the capacities of grassroots nonprofit organizations? How can technical assisters then help facilitate replications in other locations? Chapter 3 begins to answer these questions.

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