For Nonprofits, Listening to Constituents takes Courage
Updated: Nov 19, 2021
When I was a little girl there was a show on TV called Father Knows Best.
It was a sitcom about a Midwestern American family where, essentially, the wise, kind and loving Dad (played by Robert Young) always knew what to say or do to help his kids get out of whatever sticky situation they had gotten themselves into.
It was sweet and heartwarming if you like that kind of thing.
Over the years I’ve seen many nonprofits attempt to play that role with their constituents and clients. They know what’s “best” for the people they serve and do everything in their power to provide what’s needed.
It’s a strategy that, while well-intentioned, is just as outdated as the Father Knows Best TV show.
Way back in fall of 2015, I wrapped up a project for the San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP) that did just the opposite. My nonprofit consulting firm was hired to facilitate a series of “community conversations” with a variety of people who had working relationships with the nonprofit, in an effort to figure out what they thought SDWP was doing well and what they thought could be done better.
Crystal Trull and I convened a series of meetings with adults and young people who used the nonprofit’s job readiness services, with nonprofit organizations who worked in partnership with the organization, and with employers who hired people who had come through the system.
It was eye opening!
People were passionate, articulate and smart about what they wanted and needed.
Many of their ideas were what I call “duh” ideas, as in, “why the heck didn’t we think of that before?” ideas because they were so straightforward and simple.
They were eager to provide their input (to a surprising degree from my perspective) because they were so happy (or alternatively, frustrated) about their experiences.
Each person who participated in the process provided feedback and was constructive and did so in a respectful way.
I loved working on this project because it resulted in a treasure trove of useful information for SDWP. A roadmap of things the organization could implement to better serve its constituents. You can click here to read the report.
But it wouldn’t have happened, or yielded such incredibly useful information, without a sincere willingness on the part of the folks at SDWP to recognize that they might not know best.
It takes courage for a nonprofit to elicit feedback from its constituents.
And it takes great courage to elicit feedback in such a way that allows these folks to provide an honest assessment of their experiences. That exchange can only happen with an impartial facilitator. It’s as simple as that.
It’s also one of the most important things an organization can do aside from implementing the results.
You can learn more about my work connecting organizations with their communities on the Connecting Community tab, as well as read feedback from SDWP's Andrew Picard.