From Input to Ownership: How Nonprofits Can Engage with the People They Serve to Carry Out Their Missions

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Author(s): Matt Forti and Willa Seldon

Published Date: July 31, 2013

Photo: Family Independence Initiative

Executive Summary

More and more, leading nonprofits are engaging clients or beneficiaries or residents—their constituents—in order to deliver services more effectively and have more impact on the social concerns they are trying to address. Of course constituent engagement is nothing new. Across the US, for example,

thousands of constituent-led organizations—parent groups, neighborhood associations, civil rights organizations, membership groups, and many more—are demonstrating every day the power of people to come together and act on their own behalf.

Yet for many social sector organizations, particularly those not founded and led by the people the organization is trying to benefit, constituent engagement is a challenge. While most of us understand that it makes sense to find out what people think, it is often unclear what the best strategies are for eliciting useful and timely input, much less how to take action based on it. And with gathering and using input such a daunting task, many cannot imagine involving constituents in deeper ways, like developing programs together or giving constituents control of resources.


Philanthropist Neeru Khosla finds input from students to be so critical that she hired a team of them

However, in fields such as education, health care, and neighborhood revitalization, integrating constituent perspectives about what works in their contexts (“local knowledge”) with what has been learned from broader evidence and experience (“technical knowledge”) has sometimes led to better programs and greater impact.

In this article, we discuss some promising ways that nonprofits are engaging their constituents, combining local and technical knowledge to deliver better results. First we consider constituent input—whether it be a well-structured focus group or a more intensive process to collect observations and stories and translate them into prototypes and solutions. Then we look at more intensive forms of constituent engagement, which we have termed co-creation and ownership, where constituents play a deeper and more active role. 
The examples we discuss demonstrate that nonprofits can realize tangible benefits from constituent engagement: more effective solutions, the opportunity to make fuller use of constituents’ own knowledge and capabilities to address the problem at hand, and potentially more sustainable change

Effectively engaging constituents takes practice, persistence, a willingness to learn, and a recognition that constituent perspectives are not a panacea. Our hope is that, as more organizations effectively use constituent engagement, the social sector will learn more about what approaches work best, and how engagement can better be integrated with evidence-based practices and programs.

This work by The Bridgespan Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Bridgespan's Terms of Use page.


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Anne DiNoto
Thanks for this timely paper! I'm a resident of and on the board of a community development corporation in the Boston area. Our new executive director has proposed engaging with our residents more but is getting push back from the board. One of the directors even went so far to say she doesn't think the board knows enough about the organization to communicate with the residents. Any other suggestions on how to create the type of engagement described in this article?
8/22/2013 9:42:27 AM

Jen Meadows
Wonderful article with rich resources to pull from. Our small non-profit arts organization has already begun engaging constituents on a very personal level and what a difference it has made! It's important to talk directly with the people you serve, as well as others whose job it is to serve them.

Every single week make it a point to speak with someone face to face regarding their thoughts and ideas. Don't just talk to them, listen.
8/5/2013 3:52:33 PM

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