Constituent engagement refers to various approaches that nonprofit organizations can take to involve the individuals, families, and communities they hope to benefit in the process of identifying the issues the organizations seek to address, the programs the organizations provide, and the ways the organizations measure success.
How it's used
Constituent engagement can help nonprofits develop and deliver more effective programs, as well as sustain the impact of interventions by making better use of constituents' own knowledge and abilities to address the problems they face. Many organizations across the social sector practice some form of constituent engagement. However, in some fields, such as community organizing and community-based development, the engagement itself is the primary goal. In those fields, the primary motivation is fostering deep constituent engagement that empowers individuals and families as decision makers and leaders of change. Organizations can employ constituent engagement in three distinct ways: gathering input; co-creating programs and services with constituents; and empowering the constituents themselves to define, achieve, and gain responsibility for outcomes.
Nonprofits can integrate constituent engagement into many aspects of their work, including program design and delivery, measurement, scaling, and organizational design. Some organizations use surveys, focus groups, and town hall meetings to solicit greater constituent input. Other nonprofits form committees made up of constituents or use deep ethnography to co-develop programs or processes. And some nonprofits have decision-making councils that are driven primarily by constituents. Each organization's use of constituent engagement should be tailored to the organization, the social issues the organization is confronting, and the needs of its constituents.
For nonprofits in the early stages of constituent engagement or interested in further exploring its potential, we would suggest the following steps:
- Begin with soliciting input: Gather valuable information from constituents by providing opportunities to truly hear their voices and integrate their feedback. Possible methods to gain input include forums such as focus groups, community meetings, and interviews with community leaders, as well as platforms such as surveys or social media. Strive to engage with a range of different types of constituents, not just those who are easiest to access.
- Identify opportunities to deepen efforts: Taking stock of your organization's structure and work, consider opportunities to engage constituents more deeply through co-development (e.g., constituents help to design or scale programs) or by finding ways to transfer ownership to constituents (e.g., constituents manage and track their own success, with background support from the nonprofit).
- Design pilots and measures of success: Pilot opportunities to engage constituents in program design, program delivery, measurement, or scaling. As part of the design, define measures of success and a learning agenda for the pilot that meaningfully assess the level of engagement by constituents based on participation, direct feedback on programs and services, and the degree to which they exercise ownership over the decisions and outcomes of the pilots.
- Learn and adapt: Use the success metrics and learning agenda to gain insights about the strengths and weaknesses of the new constituent-engagement approach. Discuss opportunities to improve the approach, and make adaptations that will increase constituent participation and engagement.
- Expand where relevant: Identify opportunities to roll out deeper constituent engagement more broadly within the organization.
From Input to Ownership: How Nonprofits Can Engage with the People They Serve to Carry Out Their Missions
In this article, Bridgespan outlines the constituent-engagement spectrum—input, co-creation, and ownership—including specific examples of nonprofits that have successfully employed each method as an anchor strategy and core component of their work.
Listening to Those Who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries
This article provides an overview of the benefits of constituent engagement, citing key examples of new intermediaries and ongoing efforts in education and healthcare to engage constituents.
21st Century Potential of Constituency Voice
This white paper highlights the ways in which current constituent feedback systems are flawed and provides recommendations for improving constituent-engagement efforts.
Examples and case studies
Out of Poverty, Family-Style
The Family Independence Initiative empowers and supports families living in poverty in the United States to lift themselves out of poverty by celebrating their strengths and accomplishments. This case study serves as an example of the power of ownership, the deepest form of constituent engagement.
Teacher Compensation Mobile Area Education Foundation
Spurred by a desire to support a tax referendum to fund education in Mobile County, the Mobile Area Education Fund created "Community Conversations" to solicit input and listen to the perspectives of Mobile's citizens in an effort to improve education in the county.