Community Relations and Financial Sustainability
This chapter introduces the institutions and processes that constitute the external environment of nonprofit organizations. The chapter examines the role of community-relations approaches, such as partnership, advocacy, outreach, and public relations, in the financial sustainability of a nonprofit organization.
DEFINE "COMMUNITY RELATIONS"
Community relations combine an organization policy and process used to develop and implement community outreach and awareness about programs and activities in order to promote the organizational vision and mission in a community-oriented manner. As a policy, community-relations programs and activities are intentional. Such programs and activities are part of a strategic intent to promote a positive image of an organization. Community relations involve a process. As such, all internal stakeholders are an integral part either through a strategic decision, the planning, implementation, or assessment of the possible outcomes of community outreach and awareness activities.
Community relations are an expression of how an organization translates its social responsibility. It shows an understanding that an organization is part of a larger environment, which can be a local community or a larger society. In that context, the practice of engaging in community relations by an organization sends a message that the organization values the surrounding community. Individuals and institutions tend to react positively to such signals.
FIGURE 20.1 Facets of community relations.
Community relations involve various outreach, partnership or collaboration, advocacy, and public relations activities with internal and/or external stakeholders in order to further the vision and mission of an organization. Community relations involve four pillars that are not mutually exclusive, and that are based on the organizational culture, the community context, and the challenges faced. As Figure 20.1 illustrates, community relations include various activities related to public relations, advocacy, partnership, and outreach events.
Simply put, the word "outreach" means reaching people from the outside to bring them inside. In other words, outreach implies a process from the inside to the outside in order to foster a reciprocal process from the outside to the inside. The assumption is that people in a given community, which constitutes outsiders in regard to what is happening in a group, do not necessarily understand what is going on inside an organization. Therefore, they may ignore, despise, resist, or fight what is coming from inside of such a group, organization, or institution. What is going on from the inside can be a vision, a mission, or a purpose that is potentially beneficial to the larger community. However, they may not grant their appreciation or support. It is the responsibility of the insider to inform, educate, increase awareness, and convince the outsiders about the nobility of a particular purpose. Outreach has several basic implications.
- An acknowledgment that a certain purpose, vision, or mission exists within an organization
- An authentic confirmation of such purpose from the insider as an authorized source
- A recognition and validation that the insider counts for the outsider in its purpose
- A request for some form of collaboration in the context of a clear purpose
Outreach can be initiated to implement actual delivery of services; educate or inform the target population, increasing their knowledge and/or skills; help expand access to services, practices, or products; educate or inform people who interact with the target population or establish beneficial connections between people and/or organizations. Outreach contributes to increase the willingness of a community to collaborate with a nonprofit organization, use services that are available, and contribute monetary and nonmonetary support to the activities offered by the organization. The reason is because outreach serves as evidence that an organization commits to meeting the target population on the population's turf. When an organization leaves its comfort zone and goes to meet people where they are, it makes it more difficult for them to turn down an offer of services or a request for collaboration or support. Outreach involves one-on-one interactions that enable better understanding of the wants, needs, experiences, and perceptions of the target population. Sometimes, outreach is even a must for healthy community relations if an organization wants to help a target community overcome barriers, such as lack of transportation, disabilities, marginalization, or cultural beliefs that deter them from using readily available community services. Outreach can be used to reach target populations through people who influence their decision-making process or change in their behavior. For example, an organization may reach out to religious leaders and in turn access their members. Similarly, an organization may develop outreach with the school principals and the teachers in order to reach out to their students. Outreach can be done indirectly through an organization's printed materials, social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, or Myspace). Organizations can organize educational events, such as fairs, workshops, seminars, conferences, retreats, open forums, or other similar events, to reach people in their target communities. It is easier for people to form their own opinions about an organization when they have direct experience or they benefit directly from such an organization. A nonprofit organization may be suffering from the bad reputation of another nonprofit agency. Community outreach that provides people opportunities to experience your organization, ask questions, and observe without filters may be very effective at gathering support for programs and activities. Support to programs and activities may seem obvious for a nonprofit organization that is attempting to meet the needs of a target community. However, it is not always automatic. Sometimes, the bad reputation of a program may reach the target population before your information gets there. This will negatively affect their willingness to collaborate even if they need the service that is offered. Other times, the target population may not collaborate because people do not know what is available or whether their support is necessary. Outreach can help address such challenges. At the end of the day, if an organization offers services that are needed and the community does not use such services, the organization will not be sustainable. Donors and the community at large might start questioning the relevance of such an organization. As ironic as that may sound, it is possible. An organization cannot be financially sustainable without the collaboration that community outreach can provide.
In other to be effective, community outreach efforts must be systematically planned. A community outreach plan should take into account items such as:
- Purpose, goals, and objectives: What do you want to accomplish through your outreach initiatives? What are the goals? What are the objectives?
Human resources: What staff will be sent to meet the target population? What skills and competence do you want them to have (e.g., communication, interpersonal)? What type of cross-cultural competence is necessary? Do you have a curriculum to ensure that your staff meets the prerequisites before they start to engage the target community? How will you monitor your staff to ensure that problems or issues that may emerge during contacts with the community can be addressed in an effective manner? Location: Where will your outreach activities take place? Will it be in your own facility? Will it be in community settings, such as churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, schools, clinics, public markets, or community centers? Will you need to rent facilities? How accessible will any facility be that is used for an outreach event with respect to transportation and people with disabilities?
- Assets: What are the community assets (e.g., individual, associational, institutional, environmental) that you can use for your outreach activities? What is your plan to benefit from such assets?
- Action plan: What is your implementation plan? Who will do what (activity and person responsible)? When will it be done (timeline)? What outcome will document that a specific outreach activity was completed? What messages will be communicated to the target groups? How will you customize the message for each specific group, based on their cultural backgrounds and experiences?
- Continuing evaluation: Outreach is a continuing effort and must be evaluated continuously.
- Budget: What are the expenses related to your activities? How will you measure the return on investment of your outreach initiatives?
Benefits of Outreach
In order for nonprofits to stay around, they need to inform the community about what they have to offer. Nonprofits must use their core values to define their mission, their work, their professionalism, and their success so that people know what the organization is all about. Nonprofits also need a good mission statement that informs everyone about their priorities. They also need to be effective at delivering services to clients and keep the staff up to date with changes that occur in the field.
Outreach can involve clients, allies, funders, volunteers, public officials, and the general public. Outreach to clients may secure their participation in using an organization's resources and services. Outreach to allies may generate support for the overall purpose and activities of an organization. Outreach to funders may generate financial support. Outreach to volunteers may bring to an organization the generous skills and talents of community members. Outreach to public officials may gather legal and official legitimacy for the purposes of the organization. Outreach to the general public may secure public support for an organization and its activities.