On the importance of ideas that come from your community

Last year, I attended several public meetings of a local organization. This group had changed direction without involving constituents, who were unhappy when they learned what had happened. After receiving several angry phone calls and emails, the organization’s leadership team decided to hold a series of public “conversations” about the changes they had initiated.

Community members spent hours sitting in these meetings, providing feedback about why they disagreed with the changes and brainstorming alternatives actions the organization could take. The organization’s leaders listened to community members, took notes, and then… did nothing.

They stayed the course and did not appear to take any of the community feedback into consideration. Feeling like their time at these meetings had been wasted, and unhappy that their feedback had not been used, long-time volunteers and donors quietly moved on.

The organization’s leaders found themselves in the tricky spot of trying to convince unhappy constituents that the change of direction was a good idea. To admit in public that they might have made a misstep would have been intensely uncomfortable for them, at least in the short term. That makes sense. After all, no one likes to be forced to admit a mistake with people watching (especially when those people are our supervisors or board members).

How can your organization avoid winding up in this tough situation?

Don’t wait until a project is finished to ask for input from your community. Front-load all of your project planning with questions for members of your community about what they want, and then start building projects around common themes that emerge from their answers. As you develop a project, keep going back to community members to make sure you are on the right course. If not, tweak your plans and try again.

In human-centered design, this process is called prototyping. It takes time, certainly, but that time is well spent. When you prototype your projects, you end up with projects that best meet the needs of the community you serve, a strong connection between the project and your community members, who will want to see it succeed. It is very hard, if not impossible, to achieve this kind of buy-in for projects that are designed without genuine community engagement — the unfortunate path taken by the organization I described above.

Strong organizations build their programs on the needs and input of the people they serve.

Think about your organization. How do you get ideas from the community it serves? Do you use those ideas to improve your programs and services? Are you engaging community members throughout the project design process, or do you reveal a project only after it has been fully designed?


Photo: Death to Stock

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