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.

In order to be successful, a CBO’s staff needs to be willing to take risks to serve their community more effectively. They can try new or non-traditional approaches, or even update their mission statement to adjust to changing times and community needs. The director of the organization must also share this willingness to take risks since the future of the CBO ultimately depends on them. By nature, CBOs need community input in order to function. There really is no better way to improve the services that a CBO offers a community than by having the community itself share what it needs or what changes it wants to see.

Programs like CIANA's ESL and civics classes are dependent on private funding and other grants to serve its clients. Here, one of those classes takes a break to smile for the camera in CIANA's office, December 2017. Photo: Carissa Davies

We at CIANA have been adapting to changes in New York City and the challenges that immigrants face for a while now. CIANA was originally founded in 2006 to protect Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim immigrants from the consequences of post-9/11 discrimination. In the past few years, we have adjusted our organization’s structure to accommodate the increasing proportion of our client base that Latin American immigrants now share. With fundraising efforts like our Giving Tuesday campaign and support from immigrant allies in New York City and beyond, we are gathering the funding necessary to serve New York City’s immigrant communities more effectively.

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31-09 Newtown Avenue, Suite 411

Astoria, NY 11102

(718) 545-4040

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