Do The People You Serve Have A Seat At The Table?


Nonprofits often function with the noblest intentions, aiming to create impactful change in their communities. But an important question should be carefully considered: Are the very people you serve actively involved in decisions that will directly impact their lives?

Including representatives from the community isn’t just about optics or being politically correct—it’s about holistic, sustainable impact. When crafting strategies, shaping the mission, or defining services and programs, it’s imperative that the individuals at the heart of these initiatives are not simply seen as beneficiaries but as collaborators.

All too often, the voices of those who have been historically marginalized or who lack access to resources are unintentionally silenced and relegated to being passive recipients rather than active participants. However, these individuals most likely possess the most valuable insights and solutions to problems rooted in lived experiences. They know their needs best. They understand the intricacies of the challenges they face daily and, given the opportunity, can provide innovative, practical solutions.

Being in close proximity to the people served not only amplifies their brilliance and resilience but also underscores the fact that they have the most at stake. Their life experiences, their families, and their communities are directly intertwined with the mission of the nonprofit. The traditional perspective of working “for” your community or providing services “to” people need to shift towards working “with” the people who care the most about their community. Such a collaborative approach can yield strategies that are more effective, sustainable, and culturally connected.

What are some practical ways this can be implemented?

Establish Meaningful Relationships Based on Trust: Relationships are at the core of sustainable change. As rightly put, “Change moves at the speed of trust, and trust moves at the speed of relationships.” Investing time in nurturing genuine relationships grounded in mutual trust and understanding is invaluable.

Facilitate Community Cohorts: Form a group of community members who meet regularly, providing a platform where they can voice concerns, identify challenges, and co-create solutions. This grassroots approach ensures interventions are rooted in real needs and practical insights.

Include Community Members in Leadership: Consider inviting a representative from the community to join the board of directors or advisory panels. This inclusion ensures that decisions made at the highest levels are informed by realities on the ground.

Hire From Within the Community: Beyond just seeking feedback, hiring team members from the community being served ensures that they have a say in daily operations and decision-making. They become bridges, linking the nonprofit’s mission with the real-world aspirations of the community.

Are you interested in diving deeper into community engagement for your cause? Reach out to our good friends at Cohesion. With years of building meaningful community relationships under their belt, they are well-equipped to guide you in creating a solid framework tailored to the community you serve.

By making these shifts, nonprofits can transition from being external change agents to becoming integrated collaborators, co-creating the journey of transformation in their communities.

After all, true change is driven by those who have the most to gain and the most to give.

Bill Cummings

Bill is a seasoned nonprofit founder, leader, marketer, fundraiser, and storyteller. He is the founder and former executive director of Lemonade International and has served in leadership positions with Zoe Empowers and Restore NYC. He works with clients on organizational strategy, branding, fundraising, and communications.