I’ll never forget the day when, early in my career, a colleague asked me to do something that felt wrong. I was less than a year out of college and working as a television producer for a major network in Topeka, Kansas, when news came across police scanners that a body had been found in a local hotel room. I remember feeling sick to my stomach. We sent a reporter to the scene.
Several hours later I found myself talking with a colleague from the promotions department. He asked me for video from the scene so that he could produce a promotional piece highlighting that we were the first network there. “What on earth?” I thought. I thought of the deceased person’s parent watching this replayed on TV and their child’s death being used as an opportunity for self-promotion. Where was the empathy for this family? Who was I accountable to? As a journalist, I believed I should be accountable to the community in which I worked, including this person’s family. But I encountered other pressures inside the newsroom, for example, the pressure to promote our station to drive ratings, which generated advertising revenue critical to the station’s viability.
In my current work with Community Wealth Partners, I see similar tensions play out in social change organizations. While nonprofits are ultimately accountable to the communities they serve, pressures to please other stakeholders often distract from this accountability. Many organizations feel pressure to please funders and donors to ensure an organization’s financial sustainability and ability to continue to deliver on its mission. Similarly, executive directors or CEOs of nonprofits often feel pressure—whether one admits it or not—to please the board, as one’s own job or personal sustainability can depend on it.
These pressures can lead to decisions that are not centered on accountability to community. For example, funding restrictions can prevent nonprofits from being able to adapt programs to better meet constituents’ needs. Staff may make decisions that privilege the opinions and expertise of their board members over the knowledge and experiences of community members.
So how do organizations keep focused on holding themselves accountable to the communities they serve, even amid these pressures? For Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit focused on ending chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C., it’s a matter of explicitly committing to who comes first and building intentional practices to make it a reality.
At Miriam’s Kitchen, a core value is that its chronically homeless guests are at the center of everything the organization does. To live this value, the staff have built intentional opportunities to gather input from guests and incorporate that input into decisions about strategy and day-to-day operations. For example, Miriam’s Kitchen has a Guest Engagement Working Group, which is made up of guests that meet regularly to offer input on services. As the organization was refining its theory of change, staff invited a few guests to provide feedback.
“Every organization that serves vulnerable people has a responsibility to set aside times where you really listen to them,” said Scott Schenkelberg, president and CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen. “Otherwise you can easily get to a place where you aren’t listening to them.”
Funders and boards can either help or hurt an organization’s ability to listen and be responsive to guests. Funders can help nonprofits stay accountable to those they serve by providing flexible funding, which allows organizations to create space for listening and adapting based on what they hear. For Miriam’s Kitchen, this has meant working to ensure that most of its funding is unrestricted. “If the majority of our money were restricted, it wouldn’t allow us the flexibility to be able to adapt our programs and services to best meet the needs of the community,” Scott said.
Boards can support staff’s efforts to be responsive to those they serve by refraining from weighing in on management decisions and prioritizing input from the constituents as the most important voice. “We’ve all been on boards where someone is on fire about an idea even when staff says it doesn’t really fit our needs or program model,” Scott said.
The start of a new year brings opportunity for new intentions, such as prioritizing constituents. As you set new intentions, you might consider a powerful question that I learned from Suprotik Stotz-Ghosh at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations: How am I holding myself accountable to those with the least power in the group? Depending on the situation, power may be determined, implicitly or explicitly, by a range of factors including race, gender, age, or positional authority. It can be so easy to respond to the loudest voices or charge ahead with your default ways of working. Reflecting on this question can cause you to realize who you might be holding yourself accountable to, and it could result in different decisions, more inclusive and transparent processes, and better outcomes.
Staying accountable to those experiencing chronic homelessness in D.C. has resulted in progress for Miriam’s Kitchen. Just five years ago, the organization transformed its strategy from a sole focus on direct services to orchestrating systemic change to end chronic homelessness in D.C. As a result of that decision, Miriam’s Kitchen played a leading role in creating a coordinated entry system for individuals experiencing homelessness that streamlines the process for getting on the list to receive permanent supportive housing and gives priority attention to those who are most likely to die on the streets. Today more than 100 organizations in the city participate in this coordinated entry system, which is now housed at the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. Additionally, Miriam’s Kitchen and the coalition it helped build have secured $112 million more from the city in vouchers for permanent supportive housing. These big wins speak directly to the reason Miriam’s Kitchen exists—ensuring that no one in D.C. ever experiences homelessness again.
Photo from Miriam’s Kitchen #MoreThanAMeal video