Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Illustration by Yuxin Qin
In a survey of the charitable community through the Independent Sector (PDF), nonprofit professionals admitted that they need more engagement with their stakeholders. Yet, when looking at literature about stakeholder engagement, namely beneficiary engagement, very few nonprofits are actually being intentional about their engagement. Great evidence exists that nonprofit professionals face obstacles, mostly their own preconceived ideas, around proactively involving program beneficiaries in their program practices. These program practices include needs assessment, decision-making, program implementation, and evaluation.
However, after looking at the benefits that might arise, leaders in the sector may change their mind. Let us take a look at some of the common obstacles and see how investing in beneficiaries could change that perspective.
Obstacle 1: “We have no money.”
Involving beneficiaries can save organizations money on projects by utilizing untapped beneficiary talent, according to an article from Public Administration and Development. Asking for beneficiary input on needs assessments and evaluations can show funders the true need for their dollars and demonstrate that the organization is meeting program objectives, noted in "The Eyes of the Beholders."
Obstacle 2: “We have no time.”
As noted in "Unpacking ‘Participation’," allowing beneficiaries to assist with program implementation activities such as projects and events saves paid staff members time.
Obstacle 3: “We do not have the competency.”
Many leaders worry that their beneficiaries do not have the ability or competency to help. However, in "Programs Aren’t Everything," investing in beneficiaries increases their sense of self, take ownership of their needs, and become collaborators to the solution. This can translate into long term commitment to the organization, which would mean less time and money spent on training and education.
Obstacle 4: “We do not believe evaluation is important.”
Evaluation leads to better understanding of the unique needs of beneficiaries. Beneficiaries who are asked for their feedback have feelings of usefulness and increased self-esteem. Organizations experience increased social capital and higher accountability to their stakeholders, all according to a case study by the European Management Journal.
So, once their mind is changed, what are some strategies that leaders can utilize to move program beneficiaries into program partners?
- Commit to involving their beneficiaries as program partners. Create a written plan to do so. This could be something as simple as a memo to the staff of the organization or as big as a strategic plan, such as a Balanced Scorecard, suggested in Strategic Performance Measurement and Management, or a theory of change approach, such as the one in The Center for Theory of Change.
- Build relationships with the beneficiaries and cultivate true understanding through listening. In the written commitment, make it a priority for staff to treat beneficiaries as program partners.
- Use participatory evaluation, as Rabinowitz suggests. Ask for beneficiary feedback before, during, and after program implementation using surveys, discussion forums, and case studies.
- Ask beneficiaries to volunteer with projects and events. In the written commitment, be intentional about asking beneficiaries to help with program activities.
- Invite beneficiaries to be on advisory boards or committees to give valuable insider input. Invest in the knowledge of your beneficiaries by asking for their opinions.
The time has come for nonprofit leaders to shift from their idea of making their beneficiaries into partners and make it happen. Take it from Simeon Bankhoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council in New York City, who said that involving your beneficiaries in organizational processes can be one of an organization’s core competencies if you make it a priority. Who wouldn’t want it to be with all of the benefits it brings forth?
Jennifer Kirksey is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She is a mentor coach with the Greater Phoenix Urban League Head Start, which strives to bring quality education to Phoenix’s preschool-aged children. She aspires to be a program director for an early childhood education program in the future; she has a great passion for the social-emotional development and mental health of children zero to five. She loves to read, write and backpack in her free time!