In an earlier blog on the ESG movement, I advocated that organizations that undertake an ESG initiative expand their conversations to include an evaluation of community needs, labeling that type of initiative ESG-C. This blog goes a bit further by suggesting a comprehensive assessment of the needs of your community could be a first step in transforming your charity into a true Community Benefit Organization. As discussed in that blog, some people advocate that the terms “not-for-profit” or “nonprofit” be replaced by the term “community benefit organization” or “community benefit corporation” since it better describes the real purpose of these tax-exempt entities. However, the title also emphasizes that the end goal of the entity is to provide value to the community by addressing critical community needs. This expanded purpose may broaden the agency’s actions beyond a narrow focus on the programs it delivers and further toward the broader needs of its community.

Isn’t Doing Good Good Enough?

Successful nonprofits may have the same question: “We are doing a great job achieving our goals while remaining financially sound. We provide a wide variety of [youth programs, healthcare services, adult learning courses]. Why should we be looking into other community needs?”

A Community Benefit Organization not only focuses on achieving its primary mission but also considers its role in a broader community. A successful youth program will not be successful very long if the community is struggling with a significant threat, whether it’s infant mortality, unclean water, gun violence or rising unemployment. A comprehensive community assessment will identify those global issues that provide the greatest threat to your community. In addition to supporting your mission, making efforts in concert with other community agencies to address these issues will not only improve your agency’s image but will have a demonstrable impact on those you serve and also your employees, vendors and the individuals who live in your greater community.

Getting Started – Define your communities.

The first question to be answered is, “What community or communities do we serve?” Of course, there are the people who directly receive your services: your patients, students, members and subscribers. Then there are the people to whom you would like to provide services: potential patients, prospective members, future subscribers, and the like. But there are additionally many people who indirectly benefit from what your agency does. Patient families clearly are in this category, but also your staff to whom you not only a job but a place for them to serve others. Your employees may have a significant economic impact on your community, as will your agency’s purchasing power. When you consider the breadth of those who populate your communities, you will see while some of these groups will be defined by geography, such as inhabitants of a “catchment area,” others will be identified by a specific demographic, interest or condition.

Step Two – Discover your communities’ greatest needs.

How do you discover the needs of this greater community? To the extent that your board reflects this greater community, the best place to start the discussion might be with them. Major existential threats are probably well-known in your community and are already a subject of conversation and advocacy. But beyond your board, there are likely agencies from the community already doing community assessments, including county planning boards, chambers of commerce, community councils, local United Ways, and even local hospitals.

Step Three – Answer the question: How can we help?

Having compiled a list of community concerns, it’s time to consider where your agency can be part of their solutions.

Understanding the full breadth of an agency’s community and its needs can lead to the creation of new programs supporting a much larger group of participants. There may be another organization in the community better able to lead the initiative, and your role may be minor – the use of a room, support with publicity, participation in a charity walk, the list could be endless.

Addressing those community needs might also help your agency help itself. Nursing Homes in neighborhoods with many non-English speakers can offer ESL (English as a Second Language) programs that support staff recruitment. Volunteer Ambulance Companies sponsoring blood drives may meet community members interested in becoming EMT’s. Adult education programs may discover classes in new subjects that they can offer. The benefits of joining other community groups and individuals to work on a problem are virtually limitless.

Step Four – Do Something

Now that you have a list of community needs aligned against possible things your agency could do to address those problems, it’s a simple step of deciding where to start. Where will your agency go beyond its focused mission to support the significant concerns of its community? Those actions may or may not require an outlay of money or the development of something new to the community. Perhaps there needs to be advocacy with local or state officials. Maybe some other agency is already working to address these concerns and needs meeting space for volunteers. Getting your agency involved in these issues would be a great way to emphasize to your community that you are not focused strictly on providing your services but are part of a community that helps one another.

An Example – NYC HHC

I recently attended a presentation by the Senior Vice President for External and Regulatory Affairs of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. HHC runs the New York City hospital system, operating eleven hospitals and numerous clinics. That alone is a tremendous job. However, HHS has embraced this concept of being a community benefit organization by running a series of targeted programs within its communities that address critical local needs. Those programs include efforts to address gun violence, the construction of a residence for homeless individuals with mental illness and the operation of COVID clinics across the city during the pandemic. None of those were essential to achieving HHC’s purpose of operating hospitals, but each project addressed pressing needs in New York City.