Preparing for Change

CBOs, particularly those involved in comprehensive community building efforts, need to do a better job of involving residents and other constituents in planning and decision-making. This is a difficult transformation for organizations that often struggle under great political and financial stress to develop their group’s internal strength and political clout. Now they are asked to share power and collaborate with other groups in deliberating on their future.

CBOs need to build capacity over time to experiment with a process of opening up decision-making. Small, operational changes that become part of an organization’s normal functioning can often create ‘cognitive shifts’ in thinking within the organization.

For instance, when the Oak Hill CDC in Massachusetts struggled with these issues, they agreed to take a small step; hold monthly “involvement mapping” staff meetings. At these meetings the whole staff would discuss individuals on the CDC board or committees, or those involved in volunteer activities – what were they doing, were they happy, could they do more, did they have interests in other CDC activities, did they have leadership development needs, etc? By the end of the meeting, the group had prepared a “hot sheet” of 8-12 action steps to be carried out over the next month. Each staff member was required to take at least one action step. Most of the time, this simply involved having a conversation with one or more leaders.

This singular change in monthly staff operations produced – in a very short time – a range of impacts on the organization’s culture:

  • It involved the whole staff – not just the organizers/outreach staff – in an analysis of the organization’s human resources needs and the importance of leadership development. Now talking about people as a significant resource for the organization – rather than a burden – became regular and normal.
  • It raised serious issues about accountability, of the staff to the leaders, of the leaders to the community, and of staff to other staff. As a result, it raised a long dormant question about whether the group should have a formal membership structure.
  • It taught the staff, including the executive director, some lessons about the work of the organizers and outreach staff members. Their work became seen as more valuable and complex – therefore more appreciated.
  • It raised issues related to decision-making, the relationship between the board and the committees, the role of non-board-members who sit on committees, the need to have a range of community forums to introduce people to the organization, and the need to use the annual meeting as a genuine opportunity to set organizational priorities.
  • It raised the profile of leadership development to an entirely different level, as an activity that needed to be funded and staffed.
– William Traynor, principal and founder of Neighborhood  Partners, a training and technical assistance provider, 617-491-6134.


Bill is a partner in Trusted Space Partners, a national training and consulting firm dedicated to helping community institutions develop a new and effective networked approach to resident engagement for 21st Century neighborhood life. Bill also serves as a strategic adviser to Lawrence CommunityWorks Inc., where he worked as executive director from 1999 to 2011.


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