Effective Engagement Starts and Ends with Respect

  • By Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, May 19, 2017

By Heather Peeler

There is a growing movement in philanthropy founded on the belief that by partnering with grantees to shape what we do and how we do it, we can best achieve our shared goals of social change. And while many of our organizations have stated values around creating real and authentic relationships with nonprofits and the communities we serve, there’s often a disconnect with our actual, day-to-day practices. Even when we don’t mean to — and even when it runs counter to who we want to be — we can fall into ineffective patterns of operating that exclude, rather than engage, key stakeholders.

GEO recently piloted a grantee inclusion workshop in partnership with Southeastern Council of Foundations to help participants address both the technical challenges and the complex adaptive barriers to better grantee inclusion. We covered a number of different tools, resources and frameworks during the workshop, but one of my favorites is the Community Engagement Continuum — a tool adapted from the International Association for Public Participation.

Have you ever gone to the store with a mental list of what to buy, only to return home, review your recipe and realize you forgot the most critical ingredient? The Continuum is a tool that helps grantmakers identify the gap between their intent and their actual practice. Even among the many workshop participants who are making significant changes in their practices toward working in genuine partnership with their grantees and community partners, most still struggled with falling short of where they wanted to be.

The Community Engagement Continuum outlines five levels of engagement and the type of leadership required at each level. This tool is helpful for grantmakers who want to consider how to build their own capacities to strengthen relationships and inform decisions. The continuum describes the following levels of engagement:

1. Inform

Informing is providing information to help others understand issues, find solutions and discover opportunities. This is a commitment to keep grantees informed of your work and may include sending out a newsletter or publishing findings and reports.

2. Consult

Consulting is reaching out and acquiring specific feedback on alternatives, analyses or decisions. This is a commitment to keep others informed and listen to their input as you make decisions. Examples include soliciting anonymous feedback, asking someone to complete a peer review or hosting a community forum or meeting.

3. Involve

Involving is engaging others to ensure goals, concerns and alternatives are considered and understood. This is a commitment to reflect grantee input in your work and make it clear to grantees how their involvement influenced your decisions and choices. An example action step here is hosting workshops to problem solve or engaging others strategically based on stakeholder mapping.

4. Collaborate

Collaboration is working together and sharing information in all aspects of the decision-making process to reach a shared goal. This is a commitment to partner with grantees in implementing decisions and include their ideas and considerations throughout the process. In action this could be making strategic investments based on stakeholder feedback.

5. Empower

Empowering is placing decision-making power in the hands of others, offering them resources for more effective change. This is a commitment to use grantee decisions to drive the direction of your work. Examples are asking others to set expectations, letting nonprofits and community members decide who to fund and providing unrestricted, multi-year funding.

Unfortunately, sometimes we skip grantee and community engagement all together or treat it as if we’re checking a box because we already know what we want to do. For many grantmakers it has become clear that much of the knowledge and experience they need to solve the problems they want to solve, and to help them do a better job as grantmakers, resides in the communities they serve. But even though grantmakers have this knowledge, it is not easy to incorporate the voices of nonprofits in meaningful and effective ways. The truth is, there is no “right” level of engagement and the most effective engagement is contextual to the situation and need. Grantmakers go wrong when we plan to operate at one level of engagement and end up making the final decision by ourselves instead of co-designing with our stakeholders.

Effective engagement therefore starts and ends with respect — respect for the expertise that those on the front lines bring to the problems affecting their community, and respect for their capacity to develop solutions if given the chance. When we build trust with and tap the knowledge of nonprofit and community leaders, we arrive at better solutions. The GEO community is here to support you as you contemplate a more active role for yourself and your grantmaking organization in reaching beyond foundation walls for creative solutions. Click here for more tools and insights on strengthening relationships with grantees and tap into the wisdom and knowledge of other grantmakers navigating the same waters.