Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An example of a big problem with nonprofit organizations: who runs the show?

Location, Crispus Attacks Park, Bloomingdale neighborhood, DC
The Washington Post has a somewhat interesting piece, "A feud over a D.C. park pits one man against his neighbors," on a debacle in the Bloomingdale community. 

Some time ago, the community came together to create a park space on the interior of a block, not unlike how there private gardens are situated in London or with Gramercy Park in New York City, or how there is a movement where people connect their backyards to make contiguous spaces.

Typical of the Post, the article focuses more on what I'd call the personalities and conflicts behind the dispute--an old, somewhat, wacked out African-American resident who was one of the founders of the Crispus Attacks Development Corporation and new, white residents who rehabilitated the space and created a community park space on the once vacant and dilapitated space--rather than the systemic issues raised by the example.

What is more important than that this is about a park is how this article demonstrates problems with how nonprofit organizations are governed and perpetuated. 
Once an organization is created, usually there are very limited provisions for how people are elected to and serve on the boards of the organization.  Community organizations basically manage themselves, purportedly for the community.  For the most part, boards are self-replicating and bylaws don't include procedures whereby people can be nominated and/or elected to the board outside of procedures controlled by the board or staff.

If the organization and the community are congruent with the vision and agenda of the organization, things usually work out somewhat okay, although it's hard for particularly innovative or challenging people to get elected to the board.

If the vision and agenda of the organization is not congruent with the community, it's not a good situation, and short of the government stepping in, there are no effective means to improve the situation on the part of people not on the board.

This has been a real problem with so-called "community" development corporations, but it can be a problem with neighborhood associations and other groups.  I can think of many civic organizations across the city that are disconnected from all but a small coterie of the neighborhood's population.

Technically, nonprofits are overseen by a unit of the attorney general's office of a state or locality, but only in rare situations does the state step in to protect the interests of the public, since community organizations/501c3s are owned so-to-speak by the public.  (Situations that come to mind for me have been in Pennsylvania, with the Barnes Foundation and its relocation, use of the funds generated by the Girard Trust, and whether or not the Hershey Trust has been following the dictates of its founder and adequately meeting the terms of the trust agreement.)

To receive nonprofit designation in DC, certain types of groups, including neighborhood associations and community development corporations, should be required to have democratic procedures for the election of representatives to the boards, so that the groups don't become disconnected from the communities which they purport to serve.

In DC, with regard to the Crispus Attacks Development Corporation, the only way to resolve the situation legally, because the "wack job" is the person listed on the nonprofit corporation's articles of incorporation as the president, is for the Attorney General's Office to step in to resolve the situation.

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