Sanctioned Legitimacy: A secret ingredient of community change


What is sanctioned legitimacy and why is it the linchpin for community change work?

Sanctioned legitimacy means no institution or person can undertake grassroots work effectively and achieve meaningful results unless they are truly supported by the community. Without that sanction, the work undertaken will not have legitimacy, lasting impact or value. 

Ultimately, communities cannot and will not “own” what they have not permitted to take root and blossom.

If you Google the term “sanctioned legitimacy,” you will not find a ready definition on the Internet or in the prevailing literature. I first heard the term in the early 2000s from the results and organizational change guru John La Rocca of the Rensselaerville Institute. I have come to learn in my time at JobsFirstNYC that this principle has actually been a key driver in our work. 

JobsFirstNYC is a neutral intermediary organization. That means we are the type of nonprofit organization that does not provide direct services, but rather builds partnerships among groups of key stakeholders – including public and private partners – to make change at the institutional and systematic levels.

We are also an example of a constituent intermediary, meaning our core mission makes us focus on 18 to 24-year-old New Yorkers who are neither working nor in school and have limited access to the economic life of New York City. Intermediaries like us use their position as a neutral entity to leverage and coordinate all available resources – such as public policies, private philanthropy, employers and other community assets – to break down structural barriers and expand economic opportunities for their constituency.

In other words, as it relates to the principle of sanctioned legitimacy, an intermediary needs to understand the relevance of and seek the sanction of others in order to legitimize their purpose and achieve results.

Within the body of work at JobsFirstNYC, there are many examples of sanctioned legitimacy in action. One is the Bronx Opportunity Network, and a second is the Youth WINS Workforce Collaborative of Staten Island. Both of these community-led, stakeholder-driven efforts resulted from a relationship between the communities most likely to benefit and JobsFirstNYC. This is key: only after JobsFirstNYC received an invitation from the community did my organization feel empowered to take a partnership development approach to tackle a particular community-identified challenge.

Certainly, JobsFirstNYC is not the only entity to understand and use sanctioned legitimacy to fulfill its mission. Many community-based organizations and community-based collaborations – whether formally or informally organized – are at the frontlines of community change in some of New York’s poorest and under-resourced neighborhoods. Many, perhaps without naming it, have achieved their missions using this principle over time. A few examples include those using a collective action framework, such as the Brownsville Community PartnershipSouth Bronx Rising Together, and Tackling Youth Substance Abuse. These efforts have all applied strategies leveraging sanctioned legitimacy – and are achieving meaningful results and impacts over time. Also, funder-inspired efforts are making an important mark, many of which are applying the principle of sanctioned legitimacy in practice.


How collaborative action works

The spark that inspires collaborative action is often a commonly felt – even if not always named – problem that inspires people at the local level to act to improve their circumstances. This need is publicly articulated formally or informally. In some instances, research, the media, or strong community leaders are able to hasten the process by calling attention to the issue beyond the boundaries of the community itself.

Next, the community develops a mechanism to come together around their shared concern. They may look for a driver to help clarify and set an agenda for action. Some communities – especially under-resourced communities – seek outside help to accomplish their agenda and create tangible, time-bound, measurable goals that show progress. This is where intermediary organizations can play a key role. They can bring comparative experiences, content or technical expertise, and a neutral, culturally-competent, supportive voice to the process. We can help spark a process or see an effort through to its maturity.

While many things in the funding world have their own cycles, and things often go in and out of fashion, the fact is that community organizing and change work – inspired by, sanctioned by, and ultimately owned by the communities with the most at stake – has been central to the work of the social services sector since the beginning. While media, foundations, local governments, and movements may adopt new terminology and new processes for this work, the fundamental aspects of it have not dramatically changed, and likely will not. Sanctioned legitimacy is not a “new” tool at all, but a time-tested mechanism with its own proven wisdom.

That said, collective impact, cross-sectoral partnerships, and systemic change efforts – however you describe them – are here for the long-term. Many smart and strong nonprofits and intermediary organizations are adapting these approaches accordingly. Funding priorities may shift due to changes in national policy. Evaluation and research at the practice-level may advance our understanding of best practices. One thing, however, seems clear: undertaking such efforts with the clear and consistent sanction of the communities where change is sought helps bring about success. If those communities not only benefit from the change, but have full ownership of the change process, the impacts can be sustained throughout periods of economic turbulence – and even last a lifetime.

As we prepare to meet upcoming community needs and concerns, we can all learn from strong community change efforts that apply the principle of sanctioned legitimacy.

Marjorie Parker is president and CEO of JobsFirstNYC.