The Importance of Civic Reach

By Lewis Sharpstone, CPA
Ensuring sustainability is a top priority for almost every nonprofit organization. But one sometimes overlooked piece of the sustainability puzzle is managing critical external relationships and ensuring their longevity. This is especially important in a climate characterized by pervasive change. As we’ve covered in our Nonprofit Standard blog posts, executive retirements are impacting nonprofits of all sizes as leaders age, many of whom have tenured long careers at their organizations. The industry is also seeing an uptick in merger and acquisition (M&A) activity aimed at consolidating costs, back-office and administrative functions, and building efficiencies to expand scope and reach. How new priorities in the executive branch will impact charitable organizations is also a big unknown.

Whether an organization is approaching succession planning, post-merger integration or other organizational transition, or simply examining its long-term sustainability, it’s important to invest in key relationships.

Paul Vandeventer, CEO of Community Partners, describes this concept especially well with what he’s coined “The Civic Power Grid.” He defines an organization’s civic reach as “the essential third leg of a nonprofit board’s sustainability platform,” with fundraising and governance as the first and second legs. As Paul explains, the term “civic reach” refers to an organization’s ability to develop, maintain and grow relationships with individuals who have influence over resources across the sectors in which it operates.

Most nonprofit executives can attest that a grant proposal is received differently when you have a relationship with the program officer who receives it. Similarly, consider how your views about a regulatory issue might be taken when you already have a relationship with the official listening to you. What about how an influential person might look at an invitation to join your board when the board is already home to well-connected and influential members?

While building civic reach may sound like mere networking, Vandeventer contends it’s much more important than that. It’s essential that every organization have a sustainability plan. See Laurie De Armond’s, partner and national co-leader of BDO’s Nonprofit & Education practice, article on page 1 discussing this topic in detail. Her advice was that “To prevent gaps in relationship management during an executive transition, organizations can encourage shared ownership and an open flow of information so that key relationships don’t become siloed with one individual.” Extending an organization’s civic reach is an often-forgotten, but essential, element of building a sustainable enterprise. In this article from Stanford Social Innovation Review’s archives, Vandeventer dives deeper into the concept of civic reach and gives plenty of examples illustrating how increasing civic reach led to great results.

Over the course of my career working with nonprofit organizations, I’ve met a host of inspiring and remarkable people. While they built well-respected organizations that carry on wonderful and impactful legacies in the communities they served, many didn’t devote resources to building ties with the wider community and may have been able to leverage their connections for even more meaningful results if they had invested in civic reach.

To illustrate what civic reach can do for an organization, let’s consider a nonprofit in my area that was facing foreclosure. When we were first engaged to work with them, we were able to stave off foreclosure on a temporary basis, buying the organization time. Three years later, though, when the financial issues bubbled up again, they had cultivated a strong civic reach. They engaged local and even some national politicians, businesspeople and community leaders to advocate against foreclosure—and it worked. A favorable long-term loan, a win-win for the organization and the bank, was put in place and the nonprofit is now moving from uncertainty to strength. I am convinced that leveraging the increased civic reach of this organization is the only thing that could have achieved this result.

Here you can find a self-assessment tool to identify gaps and target areas for growth, which will help you put in place a specific plan to increase your organization’s civic reach. Happy “reaching!”

This article originally appeared in BDO USA, LLP’s “Nonprofit Standard” newsletter (Spring 2017). Copyright © 2017 BDO USA, LLP. All rights reserved. www.bdo.com