For six years, beginning in 2000, I worked for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, on a project that advocated for the creation of permanent community advisory committees (CACs) that health foundations would use as liaisons between their board of directors and the communities their foundations want to serve. More than 20 foundations have incorporated CACs as part of their structure.

Predecessors of mine at CU and colleagues at Community Catalyst developed the blueprint for foundation CACs, which were intended to increase the amount and quality of community engagement by the foundation and to assist with important assessments of community health needs.

Most CACs are separate from foundation governing boards. These CACs have significant community-engagement obligations, but have neither grant-making nor fiduciary duties. Without such duties, some believed CACs could turn most of their attention to community-engagement activities.

Now that foundations with CACs are maturing, it is helpful to reflect on the results of this experiment. Some CACs have disappeared because of conflicts with the board, mission confusion, absence of leadership, or lack of resources. Others are finding new ways to engage with, and represent, communities. Although it is difficult to assess precisely the success and impact of community-engagement techniques, several CACs appear to be thriving.

Preparing for the second decade of CACs, the Con Alma Health Foundation and Grantmakers In Health will be hosting a convening of CAC leaders from around the country this month. More information about the convening can be found at Grantmakers In Health. On the agenda are two major topics: strategies for effective community engagement and tools for measuring impact. Undoubtedly, these leaders will also grapple with many questions, including:

  1. Should CACs be entirely separate from the governing boards? Is the inherent tension between separate CACs and governing boards helpful in advancing the mission of the foundation?
  2. Should CACs be permanent? Are permanent CACs absolving boards of directors of their important community-engagement responsibilities?
  3. Are CACs defining “community” properly? Are any of the ultimate intended beneficiaries of foundation grantmaking being left out under the foundation’s governing and community-engagement mechanisms?

While CACs exist primarily in health conversion foundations, lessons learned from this experiment may be helpful for other actors in the nonprofit sector, especially grant-making and grant-seeking organizations hoping to connect better with the communities they serve.

But what do you think? Are you one of those nonprofit actors, or have you had experience with a CAC? What strategies should CACs use to connect with their communities?

imageScott Benbow is a philanthropy specialist in San Francisco. Since graduating from Columbia Law School, he has practiced law in the United States and in three other countries.