New & Noted
By Robert O. Zdenek Posted on September 16, 2008
Nonprofit Leadership: Life Lessons from an Enterprising Practitioner, by Robert P. Giloth. iUniverse, 2007, 204 pp. $19.95 (paperback).
Most literature about nonprofit leadership offers general observations and pithy sayings, leaving the reader wondering how those leadership tips apply to everyday life and how to learn from the leadership experience of others.
In Nonprofit Leadership: Life Lesson from an Enterprising Practitioner, Bob Giloth, a long-time senior program officer at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and community economic development practitioner, draws from his extensive background in community economic development to show that leadership is a journey. He argues that reflecting upon mistakes is essential for learning and adapting to changes in the field—both in the environment where community economic development occurs as well as in the nonprofit world where information technology, market competition, and regional economies present forces that make it critical for nonprofits to adapt to rapid change.
As Giloth points out, community economic development is a complex and messy job that requires an array of skill sets and a willingness to take calculated risks based on analysis and past experience. He has chapters devoted to investing in yourself; building on personal assets; managing messiness; correcting mistakes on your résumé; collaborating with unusual partners and allies; and mentoring. Each chapter starts by challenging the reader to take a self-critical look at leadership and experience in light of lessons learned from mistakes, tolerance for ambiguity, integration of values into your daily work, and the ability to mentor based on skills and experience.
Giloth’s discussion of leadership challenges during his five years at Southeast Community Organization (SECO) and Southeast Development Inc. (SDI) in Baltimore is fascinating. SECO was founded in the late 1960s to stop a freeway from destroying several white ethnic neighborhoods and had a strong community organizing presence, and SDI was the economic-development arm of SECO. The author specifically points to the challenge of keeping the organizations together amid neighborhood transformation and additional conflict between residents and among the board and staff, as was the case at SECO and SDI.
But despite those efforts, the two organizations split several years after Giloth left in 1993, and eventually SDI went out of business. Giloth observes that the two organizations operating in tandem presented a complicated business model and that they should have established more independent identities when the two were formed. But that wasn’t the case, and the two connected organizations were doing both complementary and independent work, leading to confusion among stakeholders and residents, ultimately foundering the organizations. Giloth says that institutional changes are essential to survival, and that, in the case of SECO and SDI, their relatioÏns proved unsustainable over time. In making this argument, Giloth reflects upon and analyzes his professional life as well as encouraging extensive reading to gain new insights in leadership development and community change.
While the community economic development field is still dynamic and evolving, it faces a major leadership challenge with the departure and retirement of many of the long-time leaders, forging a path for a new generation. There is, however, a critical need for seasoned practitioners and leaders to tell their story and share their insights and lessons with emerging leadership. Giloth’s book does an admirable job of giving readers the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience. What we need now is for other practitioners to recount their experiences and write about the lessons learned from their mistakes and successes. This is invaluable experience that should be conveyed to future generations of CED practitioners and leaders.
Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. Jossey-Bass, 2008, 313 pp. $29.95 (hardcover)
Social movements are often built around events, individuals, and vision. Sadly, our sound-bite-dominated world makes it difficult to sustain public interest in those movements. A good example of this societal attention-deficit disorder is the tenants-rights movement and their organization, the National Tenants Union (NTU), which the National Housing Institute helped found in the late 1970s.
The NTU, with no real funding, also had no ongoing campaign. At the time, there were local and statewide tenants groups and NTU was formed as an umbrella under which those groups operated. There were some national meetings, but the organization was mostly for information-sharing, with no viable organization or paid staff.
Moreover, activism during the conservative era of the 1980s had shifted toward neoliberalism, identity politics, and public interest work. The collapse of NTU in the mid-1980s left the tenant movement without any strong institutional presence and diminished the ability of renter advocates to forge important relationships with other community and labor organizations.
Forces for Good makes a major contribution in articulating how strong institutions and networks can build long-term movements for positive change. The authors profile a dozen high-impact, largely national organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Council of La Raza, the Center for Community Self-Help, and the Heritage Foundation. The authors argue that these organizations adhere to six effective practices: advocate and serve; make markets work; inspire people; nurture nonprofit networks; master the art of adaptation; and share leadership.
The authors offer a number of examples of how these diverse organizations make social impacts using these practices. I was particularly struck by how the Center for Community Self-Help (Self-Help), which operates one of the largest community-development credit unions in the United States in Durham, N.C., was able to use market forces to create a secondary market for purchasing Self-Help-originated homeowner loans that are purchased directly by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Self-Help also launched the Center for Responsible Lending to stem predatory lending practices that caused 10,000 North Carolina families to lose their houses years ago, prior to the current foreclosure crisis. The Center for Responsible Lending and others in North Carolina secured the passage of arguably the most significant piece of state legislation to attack predatory lending, the North Carolina Anti-Predatory Lending Law.
Another interesting example is the work of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) on designing federal policy, but also working with other national, state, and local networks to generate effective advocacy campaigns for policy proposals. CBPP was instrumental in working with the Clinton administration to significantly expand the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-wage workers. EITC raises more people out of poverty—five million—than any other federal social policy, yet many of the intended beneficiaries are not aware of the EITC and thus do not participate in the program. To remedy this information gap, CBPP worked with thousands of existing organizations and hundreds of networks to create greater awareness and increase the percentage of eligible tax filers claiming the EITC. It is the combination of good policy and strong networks that create positive impact.
The authors offer a somewhat idealized picture of the nonprofits they profile. In doing so, they neglect the more difficult issues most nonprofits face in working with an array of partners and networks. Their portrayal of the successes of the featured organizations tends to discount the role of other individuals, groups, and networks in enabling the high-impact organizations to succeed.
By connecting organizational impact to broader public benefit, Forces for Good shows nonprofit leaders how they can be more effective agents of social change and how they can build durable movements, creating long-term positive results.
Robert O. Zdenek is Director of National Neighbors Silver, National Community Reinvestment Coalition.