Precarious Values and Permeable Edges in Community Development

It has been said there are only two lasting bequests we can leave our children. One is roots. The other is wings. This lovely adage applies equally to the rearing of children and to the leading of organizations, particularly those in the nonprofit sector. Leadership is not merely a matter of keeping an organization running, but of keeping its values alive and its edges hot. Organizations, too, need roots and wings.

I’ve been recently re-reading the work of Philip Selznick, an organizational theorist whose particular appeal has always been his focus on identifying conditions inside and outside of complex organizations that frustrate ideals or, instead, give them life and hope. For him, the essence of administrative leadership lies not in performing the day-to-day tasks of management but the more elusive task of weaving values securely into an organization’s social fabric.

Values keep an organization rooted, allowing it to adapt to changing conditions without losing its identity or purpose. They are also “remarkably handy,” in Selznick’s words, for “boosting internal morale, communicating the bases of decisions, and rebuffing outside claims and criticisms.” But values are intrinsically “precarious.” They are easily forgotten, diluted, or supplanted amidst the hurly burly of doing the organization’s work and the daily demands of keeping an organization afloat. They are especially insecure for organizations that operate in a hostile environment. It is harder to hold onto ideals at the heart of an organization’s mission when they are radically at odds with vested interests and entrenched orthodoxies in the surrounding community.
The preservation of precarious values poses a special challenge for nonprofit organizations engaged in community development. Many of them push the envelope of what is familiar and acceptable, contesting conventional ways that housing, lending, governing, training, policing, etc. have “always been done.” At the same time, these nonprofits are expected to remain accountable and responsive to the communities in which they are embedded, even when voices within that community are raised in criticism of the organization’s work. Indeed, one of the most cherished – and precarious – ideals of community development is the porous border, where people and ideas outside of the organization shape perceptions and influence decisions on the inside.

(Original woodcut by Bonnie Acker, copyright 1991.  Used by permission.)

Selznick was right to worry about what is happening at an organization’s core. But for local nonprofits working in a single neighborhood and for national networks supporting dozens of nonprofits across the entire country, his focus must be broadened to include a concern for what is happening on the organization’s periphery as well. It is out there, at the confluence of corporate boundary and wider world, where accountability is secured (or not) and creativity is sparked (or dampened). Local nonprofits and national networks are alike in this regard: they must look inward and outward at the same time. The integrity of their ideals must be preserved, but so must the permeability of their borders, opening the organization to influences and possibilities beyond the pale of the everyday – what a colleague of mine in Minnesota has called “keeping the edges hot.”

An ability to preserve both precarious values and permeable borders is the “right stuff” of administrative leadership, the hallmark of a great executive director. But not every ED has the time, talent, or temperament to do it well, and no leader lasts forever. It is necessary, therefore, to institutionalize purpose and possibility, hammering them into the organization’s foundation and framework. There are many ways to get this done, but I’ve lately been breathing the heady air on Mount Selznick, so let me mention a singular strategy that he described for protecting organizational integrity, which seems applicable to securing accountability and creativity too.

Values are insecure when no one within the organization has been given responsibility for keeping them alive, or when the custodian to whom this responsibility has been entrusted is incompetent, illegitimate, or distracted by other duties. The same is true for the custodian of open borders. Selzick’s provocative recommendation: create an internal cadre of “elites” whose main function is protecting ideals considered both precious and precarious.

Now there’s a bus that few of us in the field of community development would normally be eager to board. We’re just not interested in working for organizations that lavish power, privilege, and prestige on a lofty echelon that lords it over lesser ranks. But that is not what Selznick was talking about. By “elite” he simply meant any group within an organization that is assigned specific responsibility for promoting and protecting its core principles. He had something important to say, moreover, about the essential condition for that group’s success. The persons entrusted with the elite function of value protection must be somewhat insulated from the day-to-day pressures, compromises, and distractions of managing the organization. In Selznick’s words, “the maintenance of social values depends on the autonomy of elites.”

Elite autonomy, defined as such, is not uncommon in larger organizations. Universities create “centers” for the study of this and that. Companies create “skunk works” for devel-oping new products. Political movements create “think tanks” to generate new policies. Governments create “blue ribbon panels” to pursue solutions to stubborn problems. National networks create “institutes” or “academies” to remind their members of principles that inform their work, to disseminate practices that improve their work, and to explore possibilities for extending their work beyond current constituencies and concerns.

Smaller nonprofits with limited resources haven’t the luxury of establishing separate departments or centers dedicated to preserving precarious values and permeable borders. Nevertheless, they still have ways to create an internal cadre to perform this elite function and to endow that group with enough independence to get it done. Examples abound: a committee of the board specifically charged with promoting and protecting diversity, equity, or community engagement; a task force charged with evaluating past performance or exploring future directions; or a “council of elders” with no responsibility for governance whose only duty is maintaining the organization’s connection to values, constituencies, and purposes that were and remain its reason for being.

Whether local nonprofit or national network, the defense of purpose and possibility is not without tension, nor without risk.

  • Precarious values can become too armored, excluding challenge and change.
  • Corporate borders can become too porous, admitting so many competing claims and enticing prospects as to dilute ideals, derail priorities, and distract an organization from doing what it does best.
  • Internal elites can become too remote from the organization’s administrative staff and governing board, causing confusion about this cadre’s role and casting suspicion on the autonomy it was originally granted to carry out its special responsibilities.

No one ever said that keeping values alive and edges hot was going to be easy, especially for organizations doing community development that must strive for both without tipping too far in either direction. But isn’t that part of what draws us to organizations like these? They have roots that ground them and wings that lift them. It is good to make sure that neither gets lost.

John Emmeus Davis
John Emmeus Davis is a partner and co-founder of Burlington Associates in Community Development, a national consulting cooperative specializing in the development of policies and programs promoting permanently affordable, owner-occupied housing. He was the housing director for Burlington, Vermont, in the mayoral administrations of Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle. Davis has taught housing policy and neighborhood planning at Tufts University, New Hampshire College, the University of Vermont, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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