Putting Participants at the Center of Managing and Leading Nonprofits

Pink lotus flower on water

(Photo by iStock/Marc Andreu)

Nonprofit organizations are motivated to make a difference for their participants, those individuals, families, and the communities who are central to their mission and the intended beneficiaries of their social change strategies. Whether they are referred to as “clients” or “constituents” in a social service setting, “emerging leaders” in grassroots groups, “residents” or “community” in a neighborhood development organization, “customers” in a social enterprise, or “members” in more collectivist settings, the motivation to serve participants drives a nonprofit’s strategies, informs its advocacy positions, is used to recruit volunteers, staff and donors, and, ultimately, is the basis for evaluating a nonprofit’s success.

However, being motivated to make a difference for participants is not the same thing as placing participants at the center of managing and leading. This distinction is critical because placing participants at the center requires rethinking how they are affected by the management of these organizations, not simply by the social change strategies adopted or the programs delivered. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be calling attention to this distinction and, more importantly, we are not supporting nonprofit leaders to align their management strategies to ensure participants and their experiences guide the overall operation and governance of these organizations.

This distinction became clearer to me when I started a research project that involved in-depth interviews with frontline staff in several nonprofits. It was here that I started to notice a difference between what I was teaching about managing nonprofits and what I was learning in these organizations. Participants are important actors in these organizations, playing a variety of roles that shape the work of staff, their managers, and ultimately the experience of participants themselves. Yet, in an analysis of more than 50 nonprofit management texts, I noted that full chapters were devoted to working with volunteers, boards, and staff, but not intended beneficiaries. In another analysis of 10 outcome measurement guides targeted to nonprofit organizations, I found that participants were portrayed as passive targets of program interventions. Yet in my interviews with frontline staff, a fuller picture emerged than was evident in these texts and evaluation guides: Participants are people who engage in nonprofits, not simply in programs. What they do not only shape the work of staff and managers, but also these organizations affect participants’ experience in ways that matter for impact.

What explains this limited attention to participants in management texts and this narrow conception of them in outcome measurement guides?

Part of the explanation lies with the concerns animating the establishment of the evaluation and nonprofit studies fields, decades ago. The evaluation field started to take shape as a recognizable professional field in the 1950s and 1960s. Carol Weiss recounts that in the United States, the War on Poverty of the 1960s included mandated evaluations and early evaluators were primarily concerned with making credible causal inferences about the effects of these programs. Around the same time, international aid agencies had shifted their development efforts from large-scale infrastructure to technical assistance projects and were looking for ways to assess and manage these projects to ensure that larger development goals were met. In both cases, evaluation frameworks—specifically program logic models and project logframes—conceptualized participants as the targets of an intervention (rather than people who engage nonprofits to make changes in their lives).

When the nonprofit studies field started to take shape a decade later, this limited conception of participants carried over. In 1973, the Filer Commission issued a report suggesting that a diverse and growing number of nonprofit organizations—local human service agencies, community-based organizations, large hospitals, and expansive international non-governmental organizations—shared common characteristics worthy of study. A few years later, nonprofit management programs started to pop up in universities across the country. These programs focused on management tasks considered unique to these organizations, such as working with a voluntary board and raising funds from private donors. At the time, this focus made sense: After all, why create new management programs if this need could be met in business schools or public administration programs? In these discussions, participants or beneficiaries were not a notable concern, likely because they were not seen as unique to managing nonprofits.

The cumulative effect of these historical developments is that our approach to nonprofit management lacks a fuller understanding of how participants engage in and experience these organizations. But mounting research is pointing to the necessity of making participants’ experiences central to managing and leading these organizations.

If we recognize that participants are important organizational actors in nonprofit settings, the question then becomes, what if nonprofit management practices—key policies, funding requirements, marketing brochures, donor engagement strategies, staff or volunteer management approaches—were assessed by how they would be experienced by participants?

Below are eight examples that illustrate the possibilities for how managing nonprofits might be different if participants were more central to our approaches.

If participants were more central to managing nonprofits:

  • We would recognize that participants play a variety of roles in nonprofits that require distinct kinds of management practices. For example, a study by Jennifer Dodge and Sonia Ospina shows that in nonprofits where participants play strong leadership roles and staff play supporting roles, accountability processes must support this structure, including having participants on the board and placing direct authority for organizational decisions in their hands.
  • Donors concerned with nonprofit overhead would consider the effects of low staff pay on morale and turnover, and how this affects a participant who has finally started to trust staff and the nonprofit. When staff leave, it sows doubt about the organization itself. This could mean that, instead of focusing on overhead rates, donors could look at whether the nonprofit has the capacity to support staff in building collaborative quality relationships with participants, by considering staff retention rates and job quality, concerns that have been studied by Sally Coleman Selden and Jesica Sowa and are the focus of Fund the People.
  • Leaders and funders would consider the effects of data collection procedures on beneficiaries. As Sarah Carnochan and her colleagues have shown, participants may be reluctant to reveal intimate details, especially on the first visit, when they are not sure how their information will be recorded, where the information will go, or how it will be used within the organization. Some nonprofits have addressed this by showing participants notes, collectively entering data together or, as UpTogether (formerly the Family Independence Initiative) has done, by paying families to collect data to track their progress on their goals for their own purposes, data that is then shared with the nonprofit.
  • Volunteer managers would consider how volunteer policies might negatively affect the experience of participants and work to develop alternatives. For example, researchers Jason Wasserman and Jeffery Clair found that subtle differences in how organizations treat volunteers vs. participants, such as giving volunteers better sleeping arrangements in a shelter, left participants feeling diminished. Other research by Nina Eliasoph has shown that plug-in volunteer opportunities in a youth program, while leading to higher volunteer numbers that looked good to funders, also meant that students received inconsistent and contradictory advice on homework assignments from all these different volunteers.
  • Fundraisers would design campaigns to appeal to beneficiaries, not simply to donors. One study by Lieve Gies reported on a group of breast cancer survivors who felt humiliated by a fundraising campaign where volunteers raised money for the cause by shaving their heads in a public event. Despite efforts by some survivors to get the charity to stop, the charity justified the continued use of the campaign because of its effectiveness in raising money. Another study by Abhishek Bhati and Angela Eikenberry reported that homeless children wanted to be portrayed as happy, brave, and unique, not simply as facing hardships.
  • Leaders would engage in design-oriented thinking to understand how the physical environment of an organization affects participants’ experiences. For example, Rebecca Kissane, in an early study of low-income women transitioning off welfare, found that asking them to queue outside an organization for services added stress and stigma to an already difficult circumstance because standing outside made their situation more visible to the public. In an extensive review of published research on design and homelessness, Michael Berens identified how an “open space with clear sightlines and no barriers,” increased the sense of safety for those experiencing homelessness.
  • Evaluation models would account for the fact that participants are not simply “targets” of interventions, but they are people who are also taking steps to make changes in their lives and communities and engaging the nonprofit along the way. Saville Kushner reminds us that programs often reflect designers’ and managers’ logic for social change, not that of participants. For example, in my own research one interviewee described how her client made a decision to leave a job because he felt confident and empowered. On its face, the lack of a job might suggest that this program was not working, but the staff’s effort to address his fear, not just find a job, resulted in a different outcome.
  • Funders would consider how their desire for certainty about nonprofit performance can affect the relationship between nonprofits and their beneficiaries. In an earlier study, I found that holding nonprofits accountable for meeting performance targets undermined the quality of the nonprofit’s relationship with communities because the staff treated the relationships as a means to achieving a performance target, making it difficult to develop the quality relationships necessary to achieve outcomes that require long-term collective action. In a 2001 study of an early performance milestone initiative in the state of Oklahoma, Peter Frumkin found that carefully crafted performance targets that replaced detailed activity reporting allowed nonprofit staff “to spend more time working with and getting to know clients … to overcome barriers,” while motivating staff to work hard to ensure the initial job placement was suitable for the client.

Many nonprofit organizations already employ management strategies to address one or more of the issues above. However, imagine a realignment of nonprofit management education and training around the experiences of the individuals, families, and communities that participate in these organizations. These responsive and effective management strategies would no longer be the purview of a few organizations; instead, they would provide a general framework to guide practice.

Although nonprofits may not have control over some of these practices, as funders and policymakers specify requirements, more focus on these issues could lead more funders to support such beneficiary-centered management practices. Listen4Good illustrates an initiative that supports nonprofits in regularly collecting feedback from their beneficiaries on their experiences in the organization. These feedback initiatives have resulted in many organizations, including those that have proven evidence-based programs, to change how they do things in the organization. For example, one organization changed the way it oriented new clients, to ensure the initial encounter was less stressful.

Importantly, a number of movements and leaders are envisioning alternative practices for nonprofits and leading the way towards change, including Community-Centric Fundraising, the Building Movement Project, Equity in the Center, Full Frame Initiative, National Equity Project, all in the US as well as The Racial Equity Index, Change the Game Academy, and the community philanthropy movement in international development. Countless other organizations use approaches that place participants’ experiences front and center. For their part, researchers can continue to document and systematically study the effects of management practices on the experience of participants.

The first step for re-centering nonprofit management around participants—those intended beneficiaries that are core to the mission of nonprofit organizations—is to more fully recognize them, not only as individuals who motivate nonprofit action but as people whose experience and perspective within the organization should guide nonprofit management to achieve more meaningful social impact. We can start by bringing together and building on all the important work that has been done by those who lead, support, and study these organizations (some of this work is cited above). We then need to chart a path for nonprofit leadership and management, one that places beneficiaries at the center while avoiding the for-profit customer model that sacrifices the health of frontline staff. The purpose of this essay has been to draw greater attention to how the management of these organizations, not just their program strategies, matters for the experiences of the people who engage with nonprofit organizations, to make changes in their communities and in their lives.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank several people who read earlier drafts of this essay and offered comments, including: Angela Bies, David A. Campbell, David C. Campbell, Dana Doan, Barbara Duffy, Laurie Goldman, Mary Kay Gugerty, Judith Millesen, Lisa Ranghelli and Melissa Stone. I am also indebted to all those nonprofit leaders, staff, and participants who took time to talk to me over the last several years about their work and their lives. This essay draws most centrally on two published articles.


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