As the work of community benefit organizations becomes more complex and diverse, it can be easy to get caught up in going from meeting to meeting and focusing on action. At the same time, I think it is important to take a deep breath and reflect upon what is happening; how things connect to my understanding of a situation; what assumptions I am making about a situation, and what I need to explore further.
Like you, I am a volunteer board director. I am passionate about social justice and fairness. I can also become cynical and say, “We had a similar conversation 30 years ago and things are still the same. It’s time to stop talking and get moving.” So, today, perhaps because I made a choice to tend to a cold rather than go to meeting, I am taking time for reflection.
Over the past months, Social Planning Cowichan, in collaboration with other community groups, undertook a process to ask people in the region what they valued about their community; what concerned them; and what questions they had that they could not answer. Over 1500 conversations took place at farmers’ markets, seniors’ centres, schools, on the street, at community gardens, outside libraries, and at numerous community events.
Last week, I attended a meeting where the information was presented to community. People who came to the event were invited to reflect upon what stood out for them, what might be missing and where they saw themselves or their organization fitting in? That information from the gathering was then collated to inform next steps on the road to a social policy.
You can find Social Planning Cowichan’s work at:
Anyways, back to reflection. As I think about my experience of that meeting, what struck me was the need to pay attention to community culture (Rich Harwood: http://www.theharwoodinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/PuttingCommunityinCollectiveImpact.pdf)
As a board director, I need to reflect upon several of Harwood’s questions:
- What is the civic culture of my community – how does this community work?
- Why and how do people engage with one another?
- What creates the right environment for change to take root and accelerate?
The next thing that struck me was that most community benefit organizations would say they collaborate. What does that mean? If collaboration is the vision necessary to really make a difference for the people and communities we serve, then what conditions must be in place for organizations to work together? What are the roles and responsibilities of board directors in this? How do we, as leaders in our organizations work with management to create space for conversations about people’s hopes, fears, concerns and dreams connected to collaboration? Often, I have heard that dialogue is not action. Yet, without understanding and honoring where each of us comes from, action may very well be for naught.
Finally, as a board director, what story do we tell about our community, our organization? Is it one of scarcity and the need to compete with other organizations for funding? Is the story one of “collective enough-ness”, that together we have resources and skills to meet many of the challenges we face? The story we tell is one that we pass on to others and that story affects our own beliefs, values, behaviours and attitudes. Ultimately, the story affects the people we serve and our communities.
Yes. Community benefit organizations face challenges. As board directors, do we turn inward and focus only on the organization’s programs and services? As Harwood points out, our reflex is to focus on what we already know. Years ago, in my counselling training, an outcome question we were encouraged to ask people we worked with was: “So, is doing that getting you what you need?” As a board director, I ask myself the same question. Most importantly, since as a board director I am ultimately accountable to the people and the community the organization serves, the question I must ask myself is: how is what the organization is
doing contributing to a community where people can live to their fullest potential and live a life of dignity?
Obviously, I have a lot to reflect upon. How about you?
Leslie Welin Co – Vice Chair Board Voice