Tuesday, August 20, 2013

From Input to Ownership: How Nonprofits Can Engage with the People They Serve

The Bridgespan Group recently published an article exploring the how nonprofits can engage with their constituents to deliver better results. Simply stated, constituent engagement is the way in which nonprofit organizations interact with the individuals, families and communities that they seek to serve. Using examples from existing nonprofits, From Input to Ownership: How Nonprofits Can Engage with the People They Serve to Carry Out Their Missions, highlights a range of constituent engagement forms - including input, co-creation and ownership – that can help nonprofits better understand both the aspirations and challenges that exist in the community, as well as the services and opportunities that can improve outcomes.

As the article points out, blending constituent feedback and perspective (“local knowledge”) with broader evidence and experience in a particular field (“technical knowledge”) can be achieved using multiple strategies across a spectrum that includes less intensive engagement strategies (resident input) to more intensive engagement strategies (ownership).  

As the article points out, gathering information from constituents can be as easy as hosting a focus group. For example, Connected by 25 - a nonprofit in Florida aimed at helping foster care youth successfully transition to adulthood – used focus groups with youth to understand why so many foster care youth drop out of school. The powerful stories these young people shared led to a new idea for the organization – a guidance counselor specially trained to help foster care youth navigate school issues. Within two years of implementing the idea as a pilot program, high school graduation rates for foster youth increased by more than 50% and the percentage of students performing at or above grade level nearly doubled. As a result, the school system decided to permanently fund the guidance counselor position.

Some nonprofits take constituent engagement to the next level by incorporating constituents in the development of solutions. For example, Youth Build - a network of organizations that works with low-income, unemployed 16-24 year olds to advance their education and build leadership skills - was founded on a philosophy that young people must play a role in solving their own challenges in their communities. True to the values of the organizations, youth participants help run each local Youth Build affiliate organization and, in many organizations Youth Policy Councils, comprised of youth-elected representatives, meet weekly with each site’s director in order to discuss issues like program policies and hiring decisions. A 2009 study found that local YouthBuild affiliates with active Youth Policy Councils had better outcomes than affiliates who did not.

Organizations that utilize ownership as an engagement strategy are motivated by a philosophy that constituents can and should be equipped with the power and resources needed to solve problems on their own, with the organizational staff in the background. The Family Independence Initiative (FII), for example, encourages low-income families to form groups that regularly meet for mutual support. FII recognizes that investing in people’s strengths delivers more powerful and sustainable outcomes. Thus, rather than providing services or offering specific advice to families, FII staff ensure that families have access to computers, matching funds for savings and other resources and, most importantly, other families that they can rely on for support. A recent evaluation found that, within two years of joining FII, approximately one of out every two families living below the poverty line when joining moved above the line, and household earned income increased an average of 27%.

Want to learn more about constituent engagement? Check out the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s tools and resources below.

Customer Satisfaction – Work aimed at transforming residents in vulnerable communities into empowered consumers who demand quality services. This model borrows from the private sector, where customers decide which companies thrive, which goods and services are available and even how they are provided.

Resident and Youth Engagement Tools - Building leaders from within a community is a core part of the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s work. These tools and case studies highlight how encouraging community residents to engage and lead community change can spearhead better results for children and families.

Making a Difference In Your Neighborhood: A Handbook for Using Community Decision-Making to Improve the Lives of Children, Youth and Families” - Based on CSSP’s work in communities throughout the past two decades, this handbook provides communities with the “how to” guidance that is needed to begin community change efforts, including how to engage residents and use constituent voice to inform revitalization work.

Building Neighborhood Capacity Program Resource Center – A federally-funded program, the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program (BNCP) is designed to help neighborhoods develop the knowledge, skills, relationships, interactions and organizational resources that enable residents, civic leaders, the public and private sectors and local organizations to create comprehensive neighborhood revitalization plans. The BNCP Resource Center provides neighborhoods with access to tools and best practices aimed at building capacity, including how to build robust resident engagement strategies.

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