white male board meeting

I’ve written before about how quotas for women on our boards can help change the face of management, and Lucy Bernholz at Philanthropy 2173. She writes,

“The People affected by the problem have to help define the solution.”

One thing we know about addressing community problems and making long term change is that those who will have to live with the solution have to be a part of putting it into place. Not just a part of defining the problem, but designing and implementing the solutions. Otherwise it is, at best, a band-aid.

Outside funders think they’re being “inclusive” when they involve community members in meetings and brainstorms. Flip this on its head – communities can and should be inclusive about having funders and outside experts participate in their local efforts. Inclusivity cuts both ways and solutions need both insiders and outsiders.”

Anecdote: When I was living in Indonesia, I was working with the poorest in Jakarta’s slums. They were living by picking trash and most had a lean-to or at best a concrete walled room with a mat to sleep on. Dirty water was everywhere, because in Jakarta there isn’t a sewer system or a way to dispose of garbage without burning it or dumping it, and these people were living in filth.

I walked in there, the privileged American, assuming that what the community really needed was condoms. I was certain that this would solve their problems. And then I got there, and worked in clinics. And what I found out surprised me. We saw an overwhelming number of skin diseases, with people lining up around the block. I saw people with their skin flaking all over their bodies. I saw people with fingers, hands, feet and toes missing because of skin disease.
With our temporary and makeshift facilities, we couldn’t do much other than hand out basic pills, give basic advice, and send the most serious cases to the nearest hospital.

So it turned out that my version of high impact philanthropy, to distribute condoms, would have been a really bad idea because of religious and cultural values. If I had walked in and just started passing out condoms, we wouldn’t have been allowed back. Instead, wiser people than me were there to show me how it was done, by working within the community to diagnose and treat its gravest ills, we came from a place of openness, working with people on the same level, instead of dictating what they should do.

What people needed was access to clean water, not condoms.

I believe that instituting ratios of the kinds of people that we serve on our nonprofit boards will allow us to have a greater impact on societal problems.

Look at what has been done with aid to Africa over the last 30 years. Americans have sent T-shirts. Shoes. Toothpaste. And a number of other items that could have been created in Africa. Making the manufacturing industries wither away due to an influx of free American goods. Sent with the best intentions, but economically devastating. Whenever you misplace resources, you disrupt the economic balance of a community.

There’s even a TED talk from the former treasurer of Nigeria, where she simply says, “If you want to help Africa, do business with us.”

Treat people you’re helping like human beings who may be able to offer real solutions, rather than “othering” them by keeping them off your board and out of your program strategy sessions.

In one domestic violence nonprofit I’ve worked for, there was a woman who escaped from a domestic violence situation on the board. Other than that, I have seen few nonprofit boards that are inclusive of the people they are trying to help.

You don’t have to take massive samples of what people think from the population to come up with a solution. Get on the ground. Ask questions. Include people from the community in your program planning.

You can have different people, over time, sitting on your board and giving their perspective, as people who have actually experienced the problems you are trying to solve. I would go so far as to say if you’re trying to solve a problem such as children finishing elementary school or high school, have parents of those children and a teenager on your board.

What do you think?

What about high impact philanthropy? Is it more of the same?