Why Nonprofits Need Civic Reach to Succeed – with Paul Vandeventer

by | Feb 6, 2019 | Podcast | 0 comments

This week John heads to Libros Schmibros to chat with Paul Vandeventer, President and CEO of Community Partners, a non profit incubator in Los Angeles. You’ll hear about Paul’s philosophy on “Civic Reach” and its importance to leading successful public initiatives. Paul delves into the origins of his organization which is based on his fundamental drive to connect people.

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Episode Transcript

John Bwarie:    Hello, this is John Bwarie and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence. Where we explore how leaders engage and build community.

This episode I’m joined by Paul Vandeventer, president and CEO of Community Partners, a comprehensive incubator for non-profits and social impact initiatives. We met at one of Community Partners’ sponsored projects, Libros Schmibros, a lending library located in the ever-changing cultural crossroads of Boyle Heights. Drawing from Paul’s more than four decades of working with communities, we discussed his concept of civic reach and how it can make or break a non-profit or community efforts.


You have seen a lot of projects, a lot of non-profits start and succeed, perhaps start and fail and there’s probably some observations that you’ve made about their success as it relates to their interaction with community. I want to get to that, but first I want to talk about a concept that I’ve heard you speak about and read things you’ve written about around civic reach, and can you explain what civic reach us and how that concept works, just generally first?

Paul Vandeventer:        Sure. Civic reach as I see it is a concept that kind of grew out of what it takes for a community group, a new venture in the social arena, to anchor itself and be successful and civic reach is both a personal quality and an organizational, both quality and aspiration. And we all need it in order to be part of our community. Essentially it means the collection of relationships of your general knowledge of a community, the landscape, how power works in a community and your connection to that as an organization, as an organization leader or simply someone who wants to work within the broader civic infrastructure. You’ve got to have this capability, civic reach. Without it, you can become an island separate from the dynamics of a community, a complex civic and urban environment.

John Bwarie:    So watching all these non-profits over the years, helping them support where they can grow and sometimes having that tough conversation about maybe this isn’t working. Can you give us an example of ones that have used civic reach to their success and also ones that maybe had suffered by not using civic reach? How does that manifest itself and play out?

Paul Vandeventer:        Sure. A quick example of a group that was started by former Occidental College professor and mayor of Santa Monica, a guy named Denny Zane, called Move LA and at the time a few years ago when Los Angeles voters were asked to approve Measure M and then Measure R, which were basically taxes to increase the amount of money going into transit in the region. Denny, long established in various circles across the city, used his relationships and his knowledge of the region to craft the success along with a great number of co-sponsors and advocates and activists and civic leaders of what became the most successful bond initiative perhaps in the history of the country because of the amount of money that the voters voluntarily elected to bring to this pursuit of metro rail in Los Angeles, light rail and so on.

And Denny mastered what the community equation was going to be and needed to be in order for that initiative to pass. He would never ever claim sole credit and I wouldn’t attribute sole credit. It took Mayor Villaraigosa. It took a lot of other people and then the electorate to really move that into a place where it generated the funds that it generates. That’s a very, very successful example. We’ve had certain projects, the one I’m thinking about is in the arts arena and started by highly-qualified, highly-talented artists, and yet those artists wanted to practice and produce their art. That was all they really cared about as an organization. As a consequence, they weren’t curious about what it took to link to all of the other potential arts resources in the community, the relationships it took, and the project didn’t fail as much as it failed to thrive.

John Bwarie:    Right.

Paul Vandeventer:        And I think the linkage between individual leaders of non-profit and social ventures that they have across multiple networks in Los Angeles is the secret alongside a good idea to their success.

John Bwarie:    And so when these projects that don’t seem to connect, is there a way that you can help them? At what point can you intervene? At what point could an organization recognize I’m not connected? How do they go about then building those connections, that civic reach, that engagement with the community?

Paul Vandeventer:        Well the seemingly easy answer, but the hard answer is, one relationship at a time. We’ve urged folks to plot what we call the civic power grid at which their organization sits as a center and what’s the first tier of relationships that they have that’s closest to them that connects them to more relationships along the way. In city hall, in the arts philanthropic community to individual patrons of the arts who might donate or fund their cause to the formal institutions in the county and the city that can give them endorsement, and then nationally, the NEA and the California Arts Council. What are those connections that they can begin to make just by virtue of the most close network of people that they know, which would be people who are naturally interested and drawn to their work.

John Bwarie:    So then go, let’s go even more specific. They’ve done this mapping for themselves. They’ve got this list of a hundred people they could talk to. You say one relationship at a time, what are the things they say? What do they do? How do they get from sitting around their kitchen table with their colleagues with this idea and this foundation to the NEA. What is it that it takes physically and tactically to get there?

Paul Vandeventer:        Well, one of the first things I would say in response to that it’s a complicated question-

John Bwarie:    Absolutely.

Paul Vandeventer:        … but one of the first things I would say is they need to be firmly grounded in what they’re trying to accomplish, not just in the way of their organizational purpose, but their broader civic purpose and how their organization is gonna make a difference for people in communities who they care about and want to serve. So they’ve got to start there and they’ve got to make the absolute strength of that case. They’ve got to make it narratively about where they fit into the overall story of community or emergent community. They’ve got to make it work factually so they have to understand population, demographics, economics of the people that they’re trying to serve, the life situation of the folks that they’re trying to serve. And they have to be able to articulate that case in whatever metaphor it takes to develop a relationship with someone who will understand a particular metaphor. They have to think about how that person is perceiving community and their organization and where that person’s broader interests lie. So that’s a starting place.

John Bwarie:    Right.

Paul Vandeventer:        You know I think about Al Rodriguez who I co-founded Community Partners with back in the early nineties. Al was a partner in a major law firm and Al saw numerous projects. He was a tax-exempt organization attorney, worked with a lot of private foundations, a lot of big non-profits, but he saw so many different projects that would come his way through partners in the law firm through clients asking for free incorporation and free tax-exempt application process with the IRS. And Al really had a difficult time discerning whether an individual coming to him had the mojo, the muscle, the civic reach, the gravitas to succeed. And it was in the seed of that experience that he had that he began to conceive of something he called it a Foundation for Emerging Philanthropies that would serve as a jumping off place and a testing ground for new ideas to give people time to see, does this work? Do I have the right stuff and the stomach for all the ambiguities that come with starting a new project?

And you know, Al saw Los Angeles like Baskin Robbins, 31 flavors of ice cream. He loved his work because of that. And it’s what makes a community such an interesting place to be. Not the big broad dynamics and the big politics of the community, but those individual efforts that add up to the potential for improving people’s lives and long-term change in the place.

John Bwarie:    So you know, yourself, Al, a list of other folks that we could list out here are passionate about the diversity of the city, the potential of the city, of this region, and we could probably find your equivalent in cities across the country. People who are passionate and connected within their communities and understand the dynamic and opportunity within that community. We know those people exist. Why is it that some people exist like that and others have a passion without recognizing the opportunity? They lack that civic reach? What is the difference? Why do those people also exist and continue to emerge? What’s missing in their formula that makes it so they don’t see what you’ve seen and others have seen across the country?

Paul Vandeventer:        There was a great story in the New Yorker Magazine back in the 1990s and it was written by Malcolm Gladwell who wrote The Tipping Point. It was about a woman named Lois Weisberg in Chicago and Lois was the consummate connector and he asked her, “Why is it that when new people come to Chicago and they’re looking to kind of get anchored in the community and connected up, they always end up coming to you?” And she was thinking about that and said, “Well first of all, I straddle about 11 different networks in Chicago and they all have their different place in the civic culture, and I, from various acquaintances and associations and roles that I’ve played in, happened to know a lot of people in all of those areas. And she was describing herself as a consummate connector and he asked her the question, “But why?” And Lois responded, “Because I can’t not connect people to others.” She actually saw herself and I recognized an echo, a resonance of my own habitual desire to introduce people to other people.

I recognized a little bit of Lois Weisberg in myself and I think that’s what it takes. Is this compelling kind of awe of community, its complexity, its variety, knowledge of who’s out there doing things and this urgency and frankly fun of making acquaintances between people who would not know each other otherwise, who need a little warming up in the introduction and then profit or profit career-wise and otherwise from the relationship. And I particularly love doing this with young people because young people kind of come out of their education with a bit of mystification about the complexity of a civic culture and the one that they’re immersed in. And my early training in this came from Coro Southern California, an organization I have the deepest respect for, but that also fosters this notion of you’ve got to have curiosity and awe about the place that you’re from and approach it with a certain humility.

And I think it’s part of humility that causes me to want to introduce people to meet one another, because I think they’ll make a good match and that match might make this community a better place. So that’s a long answer to a short question, but I think it has something to do with a need to see people connected in a community that I can’t resist and that others who are like me, and there are a lot of people like me, can’t resist.

John Bwarie:    How do you consciously continue to expand your network? If this is what you’re compelled to do, at some point you’ve reached the limit of your existing network and you have to consciously grow that network, new initiatives, new people come to town. How do you, Paul, reach out and create new relationships?

Paul Vandeventer:        Well guess what? Once you start doing this, it has the character of … what do they call it a virtuous cycle. People start introducing you to other people who they think would be interesting and productive for you to know. So it’s hard for me to walk into any setting where I know two or three people and not come away from there knowing two or three more. You’re great at doing this kind of thing. You, I think have capitalized well on the kind of relationships that you are compelled to.

John Bwarie:    But do you consciously choose them? I guess that’s the question. You’ve had a long successful career in this space.

Paul Vandeventer:        Sure.

John Bwarie:    You’re not just starting out. You’re there. You’re one of the leaders of Los Angeles in this space. How do you find, Hey, I need to meet this person. Do you actually seek people out?

Paul Vandeventer:        Sure.

John Bwarie:    And how do you make that approach?

Paul Vandeventer:        Sometimes absolutely cold. Sometimes by placing myself in a setting where I’m not necessarily comfortable. I love going to Urban Land Institute events. Urban Land Institute is engineers, architects, developers, brokers of land deals. Well, a lot of the business of Los Angeles happens in development and it happens that many developers really do know the city. They know the politics of the city and they know the space, the physical landscape of the city. Talking to them about where Boyle Heights is going or where southeast Los Angeles is going and how they see 30 years out over the horizon is a fascinating thing. So I made Community Partners, a member of Urban Land Institute, and I get all the invitations to their activities. I can walk into a room, have an interesting conversation about what I do, and people inevitably want to share what they do and we end up exchanging business cards. So yes, I try to not target individuals as much as settings.

John Bwarie:    So again with this, this more than two decades of experience, three decades of experience at Community Partners, how has the organization changed in response to this deep understanding of the community and the dynamic shift in the community? Right. There’s some oscillation in this the city. I mean ’92 was a turning point for Los Angeles. We had civil unrest in the early part of the year. Two years later we had a earthquake and we’ve had dynamic shifts ever since. So this is not the same city of 1992.

Paul Vandeventer:        Right.

John Bwarie:    How do you grow? How do you respond? How do you flex in relationship to the change of the community?

Paul Vandeventer:        A little background, when I and Al were first creating Community Partners we studied similar civic intermediary organizations in other cities and one of the wonderful examples that we looked at was a group called The Fund for the City of New York. And New York is and for a long time has been a fundamentally different place than Los Angeles with its concentration, its hierarchical concentration of land and space and development. And it’s hierarchical civic culture, very kind of layered like a layer cake compared to Los Angeles. But The Fund for the City of New York grew into and out of that particular civic culture and was built as a linkage between government and community and a facilitator of government doing even better work than New York government did to foster well-being in communities and so on. So we kind of respected that model and looked at other models as well.

And I always had in the back of my mind that Community Partners could start with this thing we call fiscal sponsorship, which is really helping civic and social entrepreneurs get launched and that eventually we would know and be credible enough in the landscape of City Hall and the county and the business community to become and aspire to becoming a helpful link for government, when government needed to do research and development on a particular community or a particular idea. And we both encourage that and sometimes we sponsor projects that are built to aid government in implementing a change. And so that particular part of our role is really an expanding aspirational part of what we do in the last, probably the last in earnest last 10 years or so. Positioning for that, that was the first 10 to 15 years of Community Partners existence.

So I would say that’s been a major sort of expansion and diversification of what we do. And another area is we’ve started to share some of what I’d call the privileged insight that we have about the community in the form of books and publications and conversations. This notion of civic reach I’ve spoken about a lot. We became expert in the management of coalitions and development of coalitions. What we call networks, both simple networks and highly-complex collaborative networks. We published a book a few years ago on that topic. This notion of the civic power grid and how it’s really important to understand, do a careful landscape assessment of where you sit in the civic power grid and where you aspire to sit is another part of what we’ve began to disseminate as thought partners for the broader community.

John Bwarie:    And as you go and look into the future with your organization, knowing what you know about community, know about its nature and its dynamic, what do you see? Do you continue to see Community Partners fostering more non-profit projects? Do you think there’s less? Do you think that you’re doing more of these institutional projects and the linkages and the connection between government initiative and community, where do you think it’s headed? What do you think this community is headed based on the knowledge you have of the community?

Paul Vandeventer:        Sure. I think a community doesn’t change simply by having a variety of niches where new and interesting things are happening. At a certain point, those niches need to align and form movement patterns that begin to influence and shape things. I’m compelled by the recent teacher’s strike in Los Angeles and how there’s talk right now on the wake of the teachers having earned so much empathy and sympathy from the general public about a new movement toward a revitalization of public schools and interest in public schools. We’ll see if that happens and we’ll see if there’s the energy in communities from enough niches of parent involvement in community schools and so on.

But there’s always hope where a variety of different niches focused on similar kinds of problems begin to come together and you see that a lot in communities where the niche activity begins to build its own momentum and pressure and put pressure on the broader system. Quite honestly, charter schools are a big example of that. Charter schools are not private and they’re not public. They’re quasi-private, quasi-public, and that emergence of charter schools as an alternative has been revolutionary when it comes to Los Angeles. Yes, it’s had a pushback quality on public schools and it’s drawn to a certain extent potential students from private schools, but in itself as an alternative to established systems and a very successful third option has created a change in the landscape.

Where do I see Los Angeles going? Slow accretions of change over time. One of the most compelling right now, I hinted at a little earlier is these conversations and the tensions around gentrification in communities like Boyle Heights and gentrification now happens in a lot of communities where there is a compelling interest on the part of people to live near to the core of activities, closer to alternative forms of transportation and we have in a way as a region kind of spread ourselves, pushed ourselves out to our edges and now we’re lapping back, onto like water in a tank. We’re lapping back onto the centers and what have we done in the meantime to make those centers more compelling? Well, transit which establishes mobility patterns for entire communities, has taken a surge. When we started Community Partners in 1992 there were probably some visions of what rail transit might look like in Los Angeles, but not a lot of it had gone into the ground.

We’re sitting here almost 30 years later and we have billions of dollars to spend. We have over 200 stations built in Los Angeles and every one of those stations is a center for new populations to locate because it’s close to ways to move around and new development of all kinds, new economic activity, and it’s bringing back opportunities from people from the margins to come live in the city again. And the question with gentrification is, what about displacement? And that’s a legitimate question that has to be addressed. Now we’re starting to do more in the arena of affordable housing and creating permanent spaces for people to live. And thinking through how we do that with some conscientiousness and to a certain degree regulate development so that it happens in a way that doesn’t displace worker housing or affordable housing is absolutely critical to the region. But I think this changing of the concentration of populations is clearly in the cards for Los Angeles and it’ll make us a closer, tighter city, which will not make us ever look quite like New York looks like.

We just have more landmass, and it’ll be ages before that happens, but it will cause us to rethink our relationships with one another in some fundamental ways. How do I know my neighbor? Well, people in New York know their neighbor better and not always productively but better because they travel together with them on that great leveler, the subway system. Incidentally, New Yorkers tend to be six pounds lighter on average than Los Angelenos because they walk a lot to get from station to station and from station to work and home and play. But the notion of this feeling at one with our neighbors rather than in the isolation of our picket fence little house is going away in Los Angeles and we have a new era of closer relationships that we’ve got to come to terms with.

John Bwarie:    Those relationships matter, because it goes back to where we started with the civic reach and how you build a community is one relationship at a time.

Paul Vandeventer:        Absolutely.

John Bwarie:    This is great, Paul. I want to go into our lightning round.

Paul Vandeventer:        Yeah.

John Bwarie:    And I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions and you just give me the first thing, short answer word, a couple of words, no long answers here.

Paul Vandeventer:        Okay.

John Bwarie:    So it’s the multiple choice without the multiple choice.

Paul Vandeventer:        Yeah.

John Bwarie:    Okay. Who is a leader who has influenced you in your work?

Paul Vandeventer:        I would say Al Rodriguez, who I worked with, was my board chair for many years.

John Bwarie:    Okay. What book has changed the way you think about your work in community?

Paul Vandeventer:        I’m reading right now a book about the French Revolution and a critical time in the history of France. It’s called Citizen by Simon Schama.

John Bwarie:    What is the best quality in a partner to achieve good collaboration?

Paul Vandeventer:        Transparency, honesty, authenticity.

John Bwarie:    What could non-profits benefit from more of?

Paul Vandeventer:        Go back to our conversation, civic reach.

John Bwarie:    Okay. And what can non-profits benefit from less of?

Paul Vandeventer:        The thought that they’re alone in what they do.

John Bwarie:    What’s the first place you turn to for information when working to understand an issue?

Paul Vandeventer:        Generally other people.

John Bwarie:    What advice would you give 25-year-old you?

Paul Vandeventer:        Don’t take yourself so seriously.

John Bwarie:    Okay. What’s the best career decision you ever made?

Paul Vandeventer:        To give up what had become a thriving consulting business and take on Community Partners.

John Bwarie:    And so far what has been your proudest moment?

Paul Vandeventer:        Really goes to raising and loving into existence my two boys.

John Bwarie:    Great. Thanks Paul for taking the time to talk with us today.

Paul Vandeventer:        Thank you very much John.

John Bwarie:    Thanks for listening to Community Intelligence. And for more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at stratiscope.com At Stratiscope we provide community intelligence services to businesses, non-profits, and government agencies. Let us know how we can help you.