July 31, 2013

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

Photo: Family Independence Initiative

Leading nonprofits are engaging their clients, beneficiaries, or residents—their constituents—to deliver services more effectively and have more impact on the social concerns they are trying to address. Their efforts illustrate promising ways that nonprofits can learn from their constituents about how to deliver better results.

By: Willa Seldon, Matthew Forti

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 United States, 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.

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 solutionsthe opportunity to make fuller use of constituents’ own knowledge and capabilities to address the problem at handand 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.

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