I recently had an interesting experience with a large institution our family has been involved with for many, many years. They had changed the parking structure and it didn’t seem to make sense. I assumed it was an oversight and it seemed there was an easy fix. I sent an email to the appropriate office and honestly thought they would be interested in my input. I was surprised to find I had to go up the chain of command to find someone to even listen to my concern and suggestion.
This might have been a surprise to me because I cut my teeth in radio news. In broadcasting, we always assumed that if someone called to complain or make a suggestion, that person represented 10 or 100 or 1,000 others out there who thought the same thing. We considered listener input valuable and responded accordingly. Further, we went to extraordinary efforts to figure out what our stakeholders thought.
The attitude that allows your stakeholders to speak into your organization could be called co-ownership or co-creation. Co-ownership means you consider your work to be a mutual effort and you work hard to include input from all sides. Co-creation means you go so far as to allow your stakeholders (read non-board, non-staff members) to help set direction and goals for the ministry.
This is an extraordinarily tough concept for some organizational leaders, especially leaders of institutions, agencies, and non-profits that have been around a long time. The thought that our donors and/or stakeholders have the right to speak into how we run our operations makes some people bristle with defensiveness. But why is it important and why might it be useful to us if we can let down our guard and listen?
- Our donors/stakeholders might help us stay focused on our true mission. In an interview on NPR, Kivi Leroux Miller, president of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, says the perceived mission of key stakeholders may have evolved into an entirely different animal than the stated mission. If we’re not listening, we could be shocked and confused when donors simply disappear and take their dollars elsewhere because we’re not doing what they thought we were doing.
- People in the community may see some things we are missing. As with my parking difficulties, I had a unique perspective. No one in the traffic office could see the problem they had created in one little niche. Taking a few minutes to listen to our stakeholders and consider that they might be able to provide valuable insight, could help us to miss problems and could lead to valuable new ways to serve our clients.
- We might avoid a debacle such as happened to the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 2012. It was a foundational mistake for Komen leaders to lose track of what their constituents were thinking. They appeared shocked at the outrage that ensued after the decision to drop grants to Planned Parenthood. If they had anticipated this reaction, they might have considered a gradual phasing out of the grants or they might have preceded the action with a campaign to educate their stakeholders on why it was necessary to make such a move. Same action: Different approach.
So, if we decide we’re interested in hearing from our stakeholders, what do we do?
Listen intentionally. Seek out people with different perspectives. When you talk with them, ask probing questions. What do they think about the direction of the ministry? Are they pleased with how things are going? Do they have any suggestions? Do they want to get more involved by helping to implement those suggestions? Find out what drew them to your organization.
If you seem open to it, you may hear some things that are uncomfortable. Don’t get defensive. Consider it valuable input. Know they are probably speaking for many others.
Having said all that, is there a limit?
How far is too far for us to allow our donors—especially big donors—to push our organization? What if they want to pull us in directions we think are not good or right? More on that in a later post.