Democratizing Nonprofit Organizations

Democratizing Nonprofit Organizations

Participatory processes are on the rise, helping accelerate inclusion and increase transparency within nonprofits.

Nonprofits often describe themselves as democratic, citizen-driven organizations that foster participation in their programs, governance, staffing, and volunteer engagement.

Yet many nonprofits, including philanthropies, are not as open and participatory as one might expect. Foundations, in particular, are critiqued for a behind-closed-doors, we-know-best orientation that can leave applicants wondering how decisions are made.

Social upheaval and demands for greater equity and transparency are driving change across the sector and giving rise to an increased range of participatory processes we can see in action. 

The basic principles are these: People closest to the work have great—if not the best—ideas for how to make an organization stronger and more efficient; people affected by the work should have a voice in policy- and decision-making because it’s their lives and communities that will be changed for the better—or not—when plans are implemented.

In my consulting practice, my colleagues and I see participatory trends every day in our work with nonprofit organizations. Here are three ways they are showing up.

Participatory hiring
Practices around hiring differ from organization to organization, with some still operating in a hierarchical structure that doesn’t engage employees at all in hiring or promoting their managers. However, progressive organizations are becoming increasingly inclusive in their interviewing and hiring practices. An employee team may be involved in vetting applications before management proceeds with interviews and selection; conversely, employees may be invited to interview semifinalists and provide input on a final decision. 

This is routine for peer-level hires but is increasingly common for hiring supervisors and CEOs too. Some organizations include not only officer-level staff on executive search committees, but front-line staff as well. Confidentiality is a major concern in all instances, as job applicants may need to protect their job status with their current employer. Also tricky: Employees can feel pressure to share information with their peers who are less involved or to back-channel to candidates they may know about the realities of their workplace. New hires sometimes know they were a group’s second or third choice as well, which can be uncomfortable. Despite these challenges, employee engagement in hiring is on the rise. 

Participatory planning
Strategic planning can be the domain of a senior management team and board, sometimes leaving employees feeling that a plan was “done to them, not with them”; meanwhile, the plan lacks the insights that line staff can bring. It is becoming far more common for employees across the organization to be part of the planning process, informed of choices being debated, and asked to weigh in from their vantage points. These practices have accelerated the need for planners to possess, or develop, strong facilitation skills as well as strong analytical skills. And, without question, it means that completing a strategic plan or refresh will take longer
Going beyond their four walls, nonprofits are also reaching out to the people their organizations aim to serve, creating community meetings, focus groups, and even potluck suppers to help determine future priorities and directions. Nonprofits that open themselves to listening to their communities and constituents can reap important benefits akin to corporations’ market research, which many nonprofits can’t afford. Active listening also can help organizations hear how their programs may fail to provide the services needed or have unintended negative consequences they can address. 

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Participatory evaluation
The need for stronger learning and evaluation practices in the nonprofit sector has expanded substantially over the past 20 years. For example, most major private foundations now have a senior staff role for learning and impact/evaluation. As the field of evaluation studies has advanced, there is increasing emphasis on including stakeholders in these processes. The theory is that greater learning can occur when the people affected by the work help design the evaluation process; for example, patients may be consulted as health care providers craft the evaluation questions they want answered, how and where the evaluation will be conducted, and with whom the information will be shared. 

As participatory practices expand, they become more expected. Leaders say that these processes may cost more in both time and money than hierarchical practices, but they can lead to better outcomes and, when needed, faster rates of change.

Nonprofit leaders need to track these developments to be sure their own organizations are responding as participatory practices become increasingly normalized. Not embracing these methods can make leaders seem out of touch with employees, stakeholders, and community expectations for involvement. Embracing participatory practices as an innovation, rather than responding to participation requests as “demands,” can head off future organizational strife and improve volunteer and employee engagement.

Leading new processes requires time and new skills and mindsets. These are capabilities that nonprofits will need to adjust to and learn. In doing so, the hope is for a more relevant, equitable, and effective nonprofit sector that can solve our society’s pressing problems. 

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