CIANA Explains: What's a CBO?

CIANA's middle school students at the SONYC Middle School Program learn study skills, but also have creative outlets, the opportunity to enhance their STEM skills, and a chance to interact with role models. November 2017. Photo: Kara McCurdy

Astoria, NY -Over the past few weeks, CIANA Explains has been informing the community about key issues that impact the lives of immigrants in the United States and New York City, and how community-based organizations like CIANA can help. But what exactly are community-based organizations (CBOs), and how are they different from other organizations? What about them allows them to do the work that they do for the community?

The US Code defines community-based organizations as non-profit organizations that represent a community or “significant segments of a community; and provide educational or related services to individuals in the community.” In 1955, the United Nations described CBOs to be “complementary” to community development. The main goal of nearly all CBOs is to improve the lives of the populations they serve, and they do this in a number of ways. CBOs handle a wide variety of issues, from environment to housing to transportation, and also immigration.

How do CBOs complement government work?

Governments sometimes hand over some of the responsibility of addressing and solving problems in local communities to CBOs, in part because CBOs do a more effective job of addressing local problems than governments or larger organizations, and are good sources of information on communities they serve. That information can also be used to better inform lawmaking.

Partnerships between CBOs and government agencies are crucial because government may need to rely on the knowledge and experience of CBOs to enact laws that would better serve the community. This is not only true in the US, but also around the world. When a government agrees to fund CBOs, CBOs now have a lot more resources to work with in order to fulfill their mission.

Many communities served by CBOs, such as the immigrant community, are disadvantaged in one way or another. A key characteristic of CBOs is that their staff are often very agenda-driven to improve the lives the communities they serve, and often include members of that community, or individuals with personal ties to or experiences with the disadvantages the CBOs seek to eradicate. CBO organization often is fluid, allowing staff to perform various tasks beyond their job titles. Another characteristic of CBOs is that many who work for or with them are not paid staff, but volunteers- people who are devoting extra time they have to serve a certain segment of the population due to their commitment to the cause.

Challenges, Change, and CBOs

While CBOs are immensely flexible and fluid, perhaps the biggest challenge is lack of funding. CBOs typically rely on government grants and donations from private individuals and other organizations to serve their populations and causes. Applying for government grants can be particularly difficult because many have eligibility requirements that must be met to receive them. Even just applying is tedious because the process can be long and burdensome. When it comes to obtaining donations from individuals and other organizations, the attractiveness of a CBO’s mission statement in that particular political moment generally determines how many contributions are made. In many instances, a CBO sometimes has to tailor their mission to be more palatable for potential donors with higher incomes. A lack of funding could constrain not only the size of a CBO’s staff and limit the organization’s capacity for fundraising and marketing efforts, but also limit the scope of its impact on helping those in need.