Increasing Civic Reach

Nonprofits must have influential board members who connect them to the communities they serve.

I am convinced that skill at fundraising and governance alone do not an excellent board member make. Nor do such skills alone ensure that a nonprofit organization maintains a durable, deep connection to the wider community it serves.

A third skill—I call it civic reach—distinguishes a great board member from a merely adequate one, a world-class nonprofit from one that is simply functioning. Take a couple of examples: Back in 2005, Rochester Area Community Foundation’s (RACF) smart, highly engaged board had few well-known civic leaders. With the guidance of Jennifer Leonard, the foundation’s president and executive director, RACF aimed to become greater Rochester, N.Y.’s “catalyst for community change” and realized that movers and shakers could extend the institution’s influence. RACF added to its board the CEO of the city’s chamber of commerce, the CEO of a leading advertising company, the area’s school board president, a noted venture capitalist, a former United Way campaign chair, and the head of Rochester’s downtown development group. In just one of the positive outcomes, the chamber incorporated RACF’s recommendations into its annual state advocacy platform, resulting in $7.8 million in restored child care subsidies, plus crucial support for after-school funding.

In another example, the board of directors of Make-A-Wish Foundation International, a nonprofit devoted to granting the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions, shifted its composition to achieve a worldwide leadership profile. Previously, the organization was governed by chapter affiliate representatives from various counties, a decidedly internal focus. The new board boasts a powerful cadre of business leaders with the prestige, power, and contacts to open doors worldwide. Two board members illustrate this new heft. Jim Fielding, president of Disney Stores Worldwide, connects Make-A-Wish to Europe, Asia, and North America, prime markets for both Disney merchandising and Make-A-Wish civic engagement. Tim Kilpin, general manager and senior vice president for Mattel Brands, provides Make-A-Wish with cash contributions from the company’s toy sales and facilitates business relationships through its worldwide network. Savvy, connected players like Fielding and Kilpin—people with profound civic reach—serve as global thinkers for charities while they tend to their own business interests. As a result of its new board, Make-A-Wish more expertly navigates its corporate and individual relationships, ties its work to corporate social responsibility efforts, attracts a wider range of corporate sponsorship dollars, and manages its wish granting on a worldwide scale.


Board members with civic reach compensate for the inherent limitations of the social sector, arguably democracy’s most critical, yet weakest, arena in terms of money and power. Social ventures generally lack the commercial sector’s profit-driven muscle and the public sector’s power to mandate by law and levy taxes to raise resources. Nonprofits need deep civic roots to thrive. To scale up operations, they need strong relationships with leaders in business, government agencies, and elective office. The sum of every board member’s civic reach is the soil in which those roots grow. Boards anemic in civic reach oversee organizations that are weak in civic relevance and resilience. Such organizations might have a range of funding sources and may run well operationally. But they rarely find themselves plugged into the civic power grid, where decisions about community and individual needs are largely made. Even with success, organizations deficient in civic reach often stand as capable orphans, unaccountably disconnected and alone, wondering why the recognition they think they deserve lies beyond their grasp.

In my work as a nonprofit organization executive, I’ve learned that civic reach is a function of three factors in a prospective board member: the person’s personal and professional prestige, his local knowledge, and what he can deliver in terms of communitywide or worldwide strategic relationships. These three assets—prestige, knowledge, and connections—matter as much to the organization as attentive governance, outright donations of money, and the ability to solicit gifts. Taken together and used wisely, board member prestige, knowledge, and relationships can produce monetary and marketing returns while elevating ordinary fundraising and routine governance into transformative stewardship. Nonprofits cannot afford to leave to chance that board members will acquire these abilities.

This street also runs both ways. The smartest board members want to serve on nonprofit boards that know how to trade on civic reach. These people know that investing their prestige, knowledge, and connections on behalf of an organization can have the virtuous effect of increasing and enhancing their reach in other civic settings and on other boards.


People with civic reach also distinguish themselves through at least four other qualities. They tend to have what I call shrewd environmental sensing. They possess upstream knowledge about unfolding events and can position nonprofit programs and services at the confluence of opportunities to make positive change and secure resources. Board members with civic reach can sensitize the organization’s antennae to read political, economic, and societal signals and translate them into planning and initiatives that succeed and grow. For example, former cable television business executive Perry Parks grew up in south Los Angeles, served as a social worker after college, and for most of his business career lobbied every department or political body in the city that touched on telecommunications interests. On the board of Community Partners, the organization I run, Perry became the go-to guy for decoding the interests of elected officials or for developing strategies to reach civic leaders in ways that would cause them to listen and respond.

Another quality that distinguishes board members is an ability to advance and defend a nonprofit’s organizational mission. When board members of impeccable credibility stand up on behalf of an organization, decision makers heed what they have to say. For example, Robert Hertzberg, a successful business entrepreneur and former speaker of the California State Assembly, co-chaired the board of the nonpartisan policy organization California Forward. Respected as a pragmatic moderate in the assembly, Hertzberg lent his finely honed legislative instincts to practically every recommended element on the organization’s reform agenda. When California Forward took the agenda to the state’s governor and other elected leaders, everyone knew that Hertzberg’s political intelligence and political weight lay behind the ideas up for adoption. The jury’s still out on the agenda of California Forward, but according to Hertzberg, California voters and the state’s new governor, Jerry Brown, will have ample chance in the months ahead to grapple with its recommendations, both legislatively and through initiatives on statewide ballots.

Board members also should be able to reach the broader public. The visibility, credibility, and genuine commitment of board members with civic reach can confer indisputable local authenticity on nonprofits, even when the nonprofit is a private grantmaking foundation. Time saved in establishing public credibility translates directly to money saved for other organizational priorities. For example, Tessie Guillermo, former president and executive director of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum and president and CEO of the nonprofit ZeroDivide, straddles many civic, cultural, and community boundaries. From her perch as chair of the California Endowment’s board of directors, Guillermo can confer legitimacy for the grantmaker’s sometimes controversial giving agenda inside and beyond the state’s swelling Asian-Pacific Islander community. As a recognized change maker and leader with strong roots and relationships in the state’s Asian-Pacific Islander community, Guillermo’s presence on the California Endowment’s board speaks volumes about the foundation’s commitment to a fair shake in its grantmaking for groups serving Asian-Pacific Islanders.

Finally, board members should have inside access to power. That way, they can help place representatives of groups they serve at tables where pivotal deals and allocation decisions get made. This notion became clear to me when I met Norm Clement in 1997. Some called Clement, now deceased, a political fixer. He worked for Richard Ferry, co-founder of executive search giant Korn/Ferry International. He knew the business community and had a reputation for getting things done. President Bill Clinton had just passed welfare reform legislation, and cities and counties everywhere were feverishly fashioning programs to help low-income people meet the new law’s work requirements tied to receiving welfare. Clement offered himself less as a board member and more as a civic scout to our loose-knit coalition of nonprofits and business groups in Los Angeles. We’d tell Clement what we were looking for—office space, seed funding, meetings with important people—and, more often than not, Clement could deliver or direct us to someone who could.

All of this shows that the moral aura of nonprofit charitable endeavors must be accompanied by the actuality of real influence. Time and time again, I have heard funders and other donors insist that they want to invest dollars for maximum leverage. Nonprofits interested in answering this call need to prove they have adequate capital substitutes to backstop their work. Nonprofit boards with extensive civic reach provide that bulwark. Experience has shown me that funders and donors place their grant bets on confident civic achievers accustomed to getting community work done quickly and without fuss.

Alongside fundraising and governance, then, civic reach represents nothing less than the essential third leg of a nonprofit board’s sustainability platform. Organizational sustainability depends on intimate local knowledge that can inform program direction and on relationships that can connect programs to resources and communities. No matter how good an organization becomes at fundraising and governance, without civic reach it risks failure.

Paul Vandeventer serves as president and CEO of Community Partners, a civic innovation springboard in Los Angeles that joins social entrepreneurs, innovators, grantmakers, and civic leaders in accelerating good ideas for effective action and social change. He is the coauthor of Networks that Work: A Practitioner’s Guide to Managing Networked Action.

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  • BY Gery Sasko

    ON March 10, 2011 01:34 PM

    Great advice and insights. All too often there is a cookie-cutter approach to nonprofit board recruitment and replenishment.  And, as John Carver put it, “Board orientation and education is always about teaching board members about everybody’s job but his/her own.” Board members are entrusted to their own devices and fall back on what’s familiar and logical to them rather than a healthy dialogue about board policies and commitments.

  • Marc Brenman's avatar

    BY Marc Brenman

    ON March 10, 2011 06:02 PM

    The points made are excellent.  They apply to many governmental boards and commissions also.  I worked for a board that had almost none of the qualities described in the article.  It was a constant struggle to keep them focused on and contributing to the mission of the organization.  Governors and others who appoint board members would be wise to follow the advice in the article, and pick board and commission members for the reasons given, and not crass politics.

  • Gina Airey's avatar

    BY Gina Airey, Gina Airey Consulting, Inc.

    ON March 12, 2011 11:29 AM

    This well-illustrated profile of civic reach in action deepens my understanding of the types of capital that excellent board members bring. As I read, I wished that every nonprofit now dreaming of securing a celebrity spokesperson would instead invest their energy in recruiting a board member who would not only be “able to reach the broader public” (like a celebrity) but would also contribute their civic reach. With such a board member they could benefit from a longer term commitment, stoke passion for their mission throughout the organization, and inspire all board members to creatively apply whatever prestige, knowledge and relationships they bring.

  • BY Daniel Bassill

    ON March 12, 2011 05:44 PM

    I think this is great advise that any non profit should aspire to achieve.  However, I want to talk about the real world where there are thousands of non profits doing different types of work, but there are only a limited number of people in any geographic area that fit the descriptions of having “civic reach” described in this article.

    For example, in the http://www.tutormentorprogramlocator.net site I maintain a directory that includes nearly 200 Chicago area organizations that provide various forms of volunteer based tutoring/mentoring in the non-school hours.  I operate one of these, and also lead the organization that collects and shares this information.

    Is it realistic to think that the boards of each of these groups would all be composed of people who have “civic reach” and “access to power”.  I don’t think there are enough people to take this role, especially since tutor/mentor programs compete for board members with hospitals, faith groups, arts groups, and all other types of non profit.

    Based on this I’ve been trying to act as a intermediary, pointing people who do have civic reach, to the map of Chicago and all of the tutor/mentor programs, in a “virtual board of directors” who use their civic reach and power to help the city have great tutor/mentor programs in every poverty neighborhood.  This has its own challenges but it seems that it would take the involvement of far fewer leaders if they were pointing their efforts to the entire city, not just one or two non profits in the city.

  • andrew marks's avatar

    BY andrew marks

    ON March 13, 2011 03:33 PM

    I have found the best boards to be a blend of “movers and shakers” and the people with deep knowledge of the program and/or the target population. Too many of one kind of board member, at the exclusion of the other, has not been as effective as the blend.

  • DrFinlay's avatar

    BY DrFinlay

    ON March 16, 2011 06:51 AM

    The differerences between UK and US trustee boards are interesting.  Some UK nonprofits do look for big names and fundraising stars, but the primary driver is to find non-executives who can help the nonprofit deliver its mission with skills on HR, finance, strategic planning, change management, direct experience of the user community and so on.  Its common now for a nonprofit to advertise non-executive vacancies in the press, listing the skills required and having a person spec, job description and formal selection process.  The old boy network is not dead of course, but its far less influential.  In my experience having lots of busy senior people on boards does not necessarily lead to high performing boards that run the organisation effectively and hold the senior management team to account.

  • ConsultantKGS's avatar

    BY ConsultantKGS

    ON March 20, 2011 12:06 PM

    I think Daniel Bassill has raised a very important point about the real world of boards and the ever-shrinking pool of credible governance volunteers. The qualities Paul describes (chief among them “civic reach”) simply do not exist in sufficient numbers to see even ONE such volunteer at every nonprofit board table. This is but one of the realities that will likely result in an eventual shift away from traditional board governance. We need to recognize that fewer and fewer boards are competently doing the job of governing, and it has as much to do with what we ask of them as it does their own skills and qualifications. Maybe Daniel is onto something with his “share the board wealth” approach…is there a future for virtual boards? I don’t know, but what we’re doing right now simply isn’t working. And we’re buring out and turning off a lot of very well-meaning individuals by continuing to do it (not to mention the risks involved in having ill-suited volunteers (however dedicated they may be) wielding power around millions of community agency and organization board tables).

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