By Rob Meiksins, CEO
I had a meeting recently with Marquette University and Avenues West to talk about the involvement of nonprofits in the Near Westside Partnership (NWSP). Or the lack of involvement to be more accurate. There is an initiative to change that and get nonprofits involved, which I’ll get to later in this blog.
Although one could argue that nonprofits have not been asked to be equal partners in the NWSP initiative, one person in our meeting spoke about an attitude from some nonprofits that he called the White Castle mentality. He was not referring to fast food.
Instead, what he was talking about is a nonprofit organization taking office space in a rougher neighborhood. They dig a figurative moat around their building, put up gates and “private parking” signs, and in general make it clear the neighbors are not welcome on the property. Meanwhile, the mostly white employees come swooping in driving their cars, parking behind the gate and going inside to work. At the end of the day they get back in their cars and drive away again. There is no engagement with the neighborhood around them, no investment in the people or the community in which they are located.
For many years we in the nonprofit sector, and the community as a whole, have talked about and promoted Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for private, for-profit corporations. We talk about how important it is for corporations to be invested in the community. We congratulate corporations with active philanthropic initiatives. We applaud them for promoting volunteerism among their employees. At NPC, we look to the 26 members of our Business Volunteer Council to model good corporate citizenship in their community involvement, and we just gave an award to GE Healthcare for contributing to the community through volunteerism.
One of the commonly cited benefits of CSR is goodwill banking. In other words, if a corporation has a strong CSR program, the community will look, on that company with affection and might even turn a blind eye to some of the negative things they do. “Yes, I know that company doesn't promote women to senior management levels. But we love them anyway because they give so much through their foundation!”
Nonprofits may have something to learn from that. We like to think of ourselves as pure and well intentioned. But are we perceived that way? A 2006 study suggests that only 10% of Americans think nonprofits are ethical in their use of donated funds. Not good, folks.
So how can we change that perception? Can we use CSR methodology to our advantage? Yes. While I haven't done extensive research on this, I know of at least one model of nonprofit corporate social responsibility published by a group of nonprofit management experts in Spain, affiliated with the Observatori del Tercer Sector. The authors suggest there is a social responsibility construct that involves seven aspects of the nonprofit organization, stressing the importance of adhering to values and seeing the entire organizational model as a way of reflecting CSR. One element of the model seems relevant to the meeting I had about NWSP: social involvement – represented, in this case, by the nonprofit’s relationship to the neighborhood in which it's located.
This is something many of us have to struggle with, including NPC. We have “private parking” signs in our lot. We've talked about putting a gate across the driveway. How would that look to our neighbors? On the other hand, our neighbors have dropped used needles, trash, and other unsavory items on our driveway and generally act like the parking lot is theirs. How does that look to our clients who come to a workshop?
When a nonprofit behaves like a White Castle, it is cutting itself off from the neighborhood. It also sends a signal that the people who work there are afraid of the neighborhood. There may be good, justifiable reasons not to be comfortable in the neighborhood, at which point maybe it is time to move. But the decision to stay can send a very strong and powerful signal as well. If the organization stays, it has a responsibility to engage and truly reflect the community aspect of what the nonprofit sector is all about.
NPC is partnering with Near Westside Partners and Marquette to convene nonprofits from the area to talk about this. If your nonprofit is inside or near the NWP neighborhood, you're invited to participate in a lunchtime discussion June 15 on the Marquette University campus covering questions such as: What do nonprofits see as the challenges and opportunities in this neighborhood? How would nonprofits like to be involved in the partnership as it works to reimagine this part of town?
To RSVP and get more details, please email Marquette University Special Events or call (414) 288-7431 by Wednesday, June 8.
In the meantime, keep thinking about your nonprofit’s relationship,to the community, and to its values. Do you reflect your values in how you go about doing your business? Do you take responsibility for what is happening in your neighborhood? Do you make contributions to local initiatives? In other words, is your nonprofit a good corporate citizen?