Illustration of writing an article on a laptop

ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Ask a Nonprofit Specialist: Using collaborative inquiry to engage stakeholders


Question: My board of directors and staff are working, doing their jobs in the day to day, but they don’t seem to have the energy or interest in the overall mission and future of the organization. We need to develop a plan for the future, but I can’t seem to muster up their enthusiasm and creativity for the effort. How can I increase engagement in order to lay strategic groundwork for the future?

A friend of mine once gave me a card that pictured a crisis center, on fire and afloat on a river, about to fall over a cliff.  I was the director of a crisis center at the time, so it was amusing and a bit true to my experience.  Unfortunately, the portrayal of a crisis center in crisis is not so farfetched. The day-to-day work of nonprofit organizations is often so demanding, the big picture is often overlooked in response to the daily “crisis” of staying afloat.

It is tough to transition from daily demands to thinking about five years down the road or the organization’s long term future. There are tools and methods available to help transition and engage the creativity of your stake holders.  The first step, however, is to make planning and forward thinking a priority.  Management guru Jim Collins has stated nonprofits are "in desperate need of greater discipline - disciplined planning, disciplined people, disciplined governance, disciplined allocation of resources."

Cultivating this discipline of planning can be greatly eased and enhanced by engaging your stakeholders in collaborative inquiry, defined by Jennifer Donahoo as a process that offers participants a systematic way to explore issues and determine resolutions through shared inquiry, reflection, and dialogue. A thorough collaborative inquiry process will follow a process which includes:

  • Framing the issue
  • Collecting  the data
  • Analyzing the data
  • Applying  the knowledge learned.

Undertaking a full-scale collaborative inquiry project may seem overwhelming, so you might want to start in a more limited way with any process that engages your board, staff, volunteers and/or clients in meaningful deep discussions. Given the time and space to leave behind day to day concerns to consider the big picture can inspire and encourage your stakeholders to look beyond the here and now and consider the future.


Do you have questions about starting, governing, managing or operating a nonprofit organization?
Contact one of our nonprofit specialists today!


It is helpful to utilize a process that will help facilitate a deep and meaningful dialogue.  One such process is known as the World Café.  In a World Café process, planners carefully select meaningful questions that participants discuss in small groups and the groups then change to discuss the same question or additional questions, as planned.  I have used this process successfully with two different groups, and one of the best outcomes were the ideas generated by the  cross-pollination between staff and board members who otherwise would not discuss these issues.  A World Café process is a relatively easy and nonthreatening way to start to talk about the future.

One of the most extensive and helpful collaborative inquiry processes is described in the book Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability by Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka, and  Steve Zimmerman.  This book describes a step by step process for defining your business lines, establishing their relative impact, determining each line’s profitability and then plotting the business lines on a matrix, which is organized into four quadrants:  High impact/high profitability; high impact/low profitability; low impact/high profitability and low impact/low profitability.

Each step in the process demands collaborative inquiry among stakeholders.  Business lines are inclusive of everything your organization does, not just your programs or services.  The process of defining and agreeing on an organization’s business lines will enhance awareness and deep understanding of the organization’s efforts.

The process of determining relative impact is another great process of collaborative inquiry as organizations must develop their own criteria for what constitutes impact.  The book offers suggestions such as alignment with mission, excellence in delivery, meeting an unduplicated need, and building community, but each organization will need to determine its own factors and rating system.  Imagine the possibilities of bringing together your organization’s stakeholders to develop and agree on the measures of impact for your organization as a whole.

The next step of determining profitability may require the expertise of the number crunchers, but again, the collaborative establishment of how profitability is determined will build the organizational investment of participants.  The final step of plotting the lines of business on the matrix map will likely be an eye-opening process where previously undervalued efforts may shine and sacred cows are exposed.

When a process is collaborative and engaging, the participants are invested in the outcomes and become excited and engaged in the future.  Difficult decision and discussions are eased and facilitated by the common understanding and creation of criteria for evaluation.

If you are interested in learning more about the collaborative inquiry model described in this post, plan on attending the ASU Lodestar Center’s 21st Annual Nonprofit Conference on Sustainability Strategies on November 7, 2013 in Phoenix, AZ.  Our keynote speaker will be Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, Director  & Editor-in-Chief of Blue Avocado, and co-author of the book Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability.

At age 23, Anne Byrne was the founding executive director of Denver’s rape crisis center, an organization that continues to flourish today, over 28 years later. Byrne went on to build a nationally recognized, multi-site summer and after school tutoring program for inner city youth. With 25 years of experience as an executive director of emerging nonprofit organizations, Byrne, who is aProfessional-in-Residence at the ASU Lodestar Center, brings valuable expertise and perspective to the "Ask a Nonprofit Specialist."


ASU Lodestar Center Blog