Friday, June 11, 2010

Governance in Promise Neighborhoods: Function over Form

The Promise Neighborhood NIA advances two important capacities that are critical to sustaining positive educational and developmental outcomes for children: the ability to work in partnership and the ability to actively engage and utilize the support of residents. The fifth requirement of Absolute Priority 1 in the planning grant application requires applicants to submit a preliminary memorandum of understanding signed by all partners that the applicant would work with to plan and implement its proposal. This MOU must include the proposed governance structure of the Promise Neighborhood - including how the applicant’s governing board or advisory board is “representative of the geographic area to be served and how residents of the geographic area would have an active role in the organization's decision making.”

We know from our experience in Making Connections how important these capacities are. This experience has taught us that resident engagement is particularly critical to sustained community change. We also know that working in partnership with others is not an easy task as it requires a true commitment from partners to the partnership as a whole and the results they want to achieve, building trust and the capacity to communicate and compromise effectively, and a clear understanding of each partner’s role and responsibilities.

Given the challenges that often arise in building effective partnerships, applicants may find it helpful to “let form follow function” when developing the governance structure required in the planning grant application. This approach allows applicants to first focus on the question of what the governing or advisory board should do to meet their results and then track backward to how it should be organized and who is best positioned to embody certain roles. The idea is that key to creating the most effective collaboration is to keep it simple and focusing on the goals of a collaboration first ensures the simplest form necessary for achieving goals. Further, focusing on the goals and functions of the governing or advisory board helps the partners to commit to a shared agenda from the onset. Once this question is explored, the applicant can facilitate a discussion about who has the capacity to meet these functions.

Focusing on function also helps to ensure that a “representative” governing or advisory board is authentic. To be “representative of the geographic area proposed to be served,” one third of the governing or advisory board must be residents in the geographic area to be served, or low-income residents in the city or county in which the neighborhood is located, or public officials, or some combination of these groups. Further, rather than having community representation in name only, the application requires that the applicant show how residents of the geographic area will have an active role in the organization’s decision making. Beginning the discussion about governance with the question of function first forces the applicant to develop from the onset a vision for how a representive decision making process would operate. This leads to a more create decision making process that authentically embodies community support and voice.

Additional information on building partnerships and developing governance structures can be found in the Building Capacity section of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute.

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