Smile Train and Operation Smile both provide (literally) face-saving surgeries to indigent children outside the U.S. born with cleft palates. Smile Train is actually an offshoot of Operation Smile, rising out of a difference in philosophy. Whereas Operation Smile sends doctors overseas to perform the operations, Smile Train uses local doctors. The spinoff, which occurred in the late 1990’s, left the two organizations bitter rivals. However, with the changes in the world, the two organizations contemplated a merger this past spring that would have brought them back together again. Merger talks were suddenly called off though when donors of Smile Train representing 82 million dollars in contributions expressed opposition to the proposition – some quite publicly.

This is but one example of what those of us who closely follow the many news briefs and RSS feeds from the sector are increasingly seeing (special thanks to Ruth McCambridge, editor of The Nonprofit Quarterly who along with her colleagues put out an excellent daily feed and recently raised this particular example at the Alliance Conference in Oakland, California) – community stakeholders who are mad as hell about some of the decisions being made in their name. And, they aren’t just going to take it anymore. (For those too young to get the cultural referent, rent the 1976 film Network. It’s probably more relevant now than when it was released.) The public brouhaha that embroiled Smile Train and Operation Smile is just the latest volley in a trend that began with donors wanting a say in how their money is spent. It is a trend that intensified with those donors demanding the return of their money if they feel that the intent behind their gift is not being honored. And, it is a trend that became a runaway train with the decision of an increasing number of stakeholders to pump their financial and human assets into new organizations when they sense the legacy organizations are failing to achieve sufficient or desired impact.

Boards today must recognize that the marketplace will drive which nonprofits shall live and which shall die. If boards aren’t paying close attention to what their stakeholders deem important, they may find their organizations on the list of failed entities and their personal reputations sullied for betraying the community’s trust.

To me, the lesson is obvious.  Someway, somehow, boards must listen – really listen – to their stakeholders. This might be done informally as long as there is some intentional way of capturing the data on an ongoing basis, such as including BTW Talk on every agenda. For those who have not heard me explain this before, the BTW Talk involves scheduling 20 minutes or so at each meeting to discover what board members have been hearing in conversations with friends, family, and colleagues since the last time the board met. These are conversations that could potentially impact the organization and its mission in some way and often start with, “By the way….”

Or, it can involve instituting a means for gathering information on a more formal basis. For instance, the board might contract to survey the community on a regular basis. These surveys can be done online, through the mail, in person or over the phone. Interviews, insight or focus groups and large-scale change methodologies such as World Café, Future Search or Appreciative Inquiry can also be employed to garner the community’s insights.

The focused and purposeful use of advisory councils is another means of tapping into what the community needs. So is bringing greater diversity into our boardrooms. One way to do this is to choose a model such as Community Engagement Governance (see Freiwirth, Judy.  “Engagement Governance for System-Wide Decision Making.”  Nonprofit Quarterly.  Summer 2007.  pgs. 38 – 39), which actually shares the power of decision-making with different individuals in the community based on their interests and areas of expertise. The key in all of these cases is to truly give weight to what the community is saying and not just employ the techniques as window dressing.

Since this list is by no means inclusive, I am anxious to hear what others have used to stay in touch with what their stakeholders are thinking, feeling and desiring. Please share your success stories and your “learning experiences.”

By Terrie Temkin