Deep participation: moving from beneficiaries to owners

Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate and work with all kinds of organizations focused on diverse and important goals: mental health, poverty reduction, employment, youth leadership, urban food growing, education reform and beyond. Most of these amazing organizations have a strong desire to involve the people they’re trying to benefit in a real and meaningful way, and yet many are struggling to achieve this.

Genuine stakeholder involvement isn’t simple, and understaffed and overstretched organizations often don’t quite get around to doing it better. What’s more, our non-profit culture, from funding demands to our desire for efficiency, is geared away from this way of working.

What’s in a word?

Most non-profit organizations have developed a language to describe the people they work with. Sometimes they’re called ‘service users’, sometimes ‘stakeholders’ and often ‘beneficiaries’. Less commonly I’ve heard them described as ‘members’. Almost never ‘owners’ or ‘partners’.  I think the language that an organization uses is revealing.

I’ve personally written dozens of funding applications where I’ve had to answer the question ‘who are your beneficiaries’? I understand why the word is used (charities work for the public benefit, and the word beneficiaries naturally follows) but I also think it’s deeply disempowering. ‘Beneficiaries’ implies people who are being helped, not people who are being given support to help themselves or, even better, people who are both guiding the organization and benefiting from it.

Moving from beneficiaries to owners

Yes, deep participation takes time. It also creates a better project, one that best meets the needs of the people it claims to serve, has a genuine understanding of its stakeholders, avoids tokenism or exploitation, and sees potential pitfalls before they happen.

If you want the people you’re benefiting to also guide your direction, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Design your project carefully. Start by talking to the people you want to benefit. Ask them what they think about your ideas, and listen carefully to their responses. If you’re trying to build a community garden, talk to community members about whether they like gardens, enjoy gardening, and would use a community garden. Find out what the barriers would be to them taking part (maybe it’s lack of know-how, or time, or gardening tools) and address them. Find out what incentives would get them involved (free gardening classes, nice benches to sit on, a share of the harvest) and make sure to include those if you can.

Businesses are generally great at this – they call it market research. They know that if they get their consumer wrong, a new product or service might tank and they’ll lose a lot of money. The non-profit sector can be woefully lax about doing the same thing – instead, we often assume that we know what people need without asking them directly.

At the Otesha Project UK, this process is called ‘people research’ and there are all sorts of forms it can take. One group we worked with, at Goldsmith’s University, dragged a sofa onto the street and invited people to sit down for a tea and a quick chat. When I worked with Sony’s sustainability champions, they carried out an online survey with 450 employees. Both were really effective.

You might start by holding an open meeting or a community event, but remember that not everyone will come to you – you’ll also have to go to them. For example, if your initiative is trying to bring together people from different faith backgrounds, you might want to visit synagogues, mosques, temples and churches. If you’re working with young people, go into classrooms and youth clubs. If you’re running a community project, get up and start knocking on doors. This can be slow going and is tempting to skip, but it’s incredibly important – the design phase is the foundation your project is built upon.

2. Invite people to take on governance roles. If you meet people who are particularly enthusiastic about your idea, who seem to ‘get it’ straight away and who have useful suggestions and insight, then involve them more deeply from the start, and not just as a volunteer.

Roles with ownership are ones that involve some degree of decision-making. Helping dig a community garden or serve meals at a soup kitchen are great volunteer roles, but they won’t necessarily involve ownership. Helping to set the vision for a community garden, on the other hand, involves higher-level participation. Inviting people to join your board or an advisory group is a way to give them ownership. So is inviting them to take part in planning meetings or program reviews.

3. Create a safe and welcoming space. No matter who your stakeholders are, they will thrive when in an environment where everyone is respected and all opinion is valid. To create a safe space at gatherings or meetings, you might want to think about identifying a host for each gathering, welcoming people as they come in the door, making introductions, choosing an accessible space, facilitating thoughtfully, and setting ground rules for how to deal with power and privilege.

The ability to fail combined with protection against failing too big is a powerful element of a safe space. I used to sit on the youth board of the Sierra Youth Coalition, the youth wing of the Sierra Club of Canada. Youth board members had the ability to set the organization’s strategic direction, hire staff, approve budgets and make other high-level decisions but we had a buffer against legal or financial responsibility – the Sierra Club’s board took on overall responsibility for that. This was a great way for us to take the lead in a meaningful way while limiting our liability.

4. Build skills & involve people in the right way. Asking a young person to become your board treasurer is only going to work if that would-be number cruncher has a sufficient level of financial literacy and is interested in learning more. Even then, he or she might be lacking the confidence to call out bad decisions, challenge the organization’s staff, or take a touch stance on an issue. In these situations, mentoring can be great for building confidence and finessing skills.

It’s important to make sure everyone involved feels like they can contribute in a meaningful way. Clear roles help, especially those that take advantage of each person’s unique skills. If someone really wants to become a trustee but needs help learning how to chair meetings or take notes, get them support to develop this skill. Or let them co-lead the role with someone else, or rotate is amongst all trustees. In this way, you can create a space where everyone is developing leadership skills.

5. Get feedback. And then implement it. Gather feedback in the format that makes the most sense to the people you work with. At the Otesha Project, feedback on their program for environmental educators is gathered in four distinct ways at different points: anonymous feedback sheets, one-on-one conversations, group ideas sessions to build on each others’ thoughts, and by email after the end of the program.  If your stakeholders have varying levels of literacy, written feedback might not be best. If you’re gathering sensitive information, don’t ask them to give it publicly in a group session. If you’re working with young people, you might want to make it as fun as possible.

The number one way to lose trust is to ask someone for their feedback & then immediately disregard it. You might not always be able to implement every idea, but it’s important that the person giving their thoughts knows they’ve been heard and taken seriously. If you can’t implement someone’s feedback because of budgetary or other constraints, let them know why.

6. Be transparent. Information-sharing invites more people to get involved, and helps people to stay involved. You could start by sharing stories of what you’ve done over the past year, with an honest assessment about what’s worked and what hasn’t. And it’s crucial to share boring details, like meeting notes, since volunteers who can’t come along to the meeting can quickly get out of the loop if they don’t have an easy way to catch up. Make use of online tools for organizing like Google groups and Doodle so that people are never accidentally left out. Don’t let personal relationships dictate who has access to information.

6. Think about who’s on your staff team. The UK-based mental health charity MIND gives staff priority if they’ve had experience dealing with mental health issues either personally or through a family member. At Otesha, over half of the current staff started out as volunteers. At Bikeworks, several of the homeless people they’ve trained to become bike mechanics are now working in their shop. This doesn’t work in all cases for all organizations, but it’s a really effective way to ensure that your stakeholders will have a say in the direction you’re going.

These thoughts are based on my experiences. I’m sure there are many more useful tips out there, and possibly conflicting ideas too. Any thoughts are welcomed!

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What do values have to do with it?

For those of us working to create long-lasting systemic change, questions about means versus ends can generate lively and often heated conversations. If we only have a few years to stop catastrophic climate change, slow environmental degradation and fight poverty then shouldn’t do whatever we can right now to make the biggest impact?

If we believe that time is of the essence, shouldn’t we scale ourselves up as quickly as possible even if it means acting like outdated institutions? If it helps us be more efficient, should we build rigid top-down decision-making structures? Is it okay to burn out team members during the start-up phase if it’s for the greater good? Should we fly all over the world telling people how to reduce their carbon footprint? Do we take funding from anywhere that offers since it will enable us to do more? Tough questions those, and no easy answer.

However, recent work being done into the impact of values-based campaigning sheds some interesting light. If we believe we’re playing the long game (and for what’s it worth, I think that we are) then the means become just as important as the ends.

Why do values matter?

The Common Cause report and resulting project, which was commissioned by a consortium of UK-based organizations, highlights the big reasons why values matter – they shape our attitudes and behaviour, they’re deep-rooted but can be influenced and – most interestingly – some sets of values are in direct conflict with one another. By encouraging one set of values, we could actually be hurting the values that might be behind actions like community involvement, volunteering, democratic engagement and working actively for the social good.

Values in action

This conversation helped give me a language to describe why the different projects I’ve chosen to get involved with have placed huge importance on ‘walking the talk’, or putting values into action.

For example, the Otesha Project‘s aim is to help young people take action on social and environmental issues and inspire others to do the same. Over the past five years, our team has had many conversations about the impact of what we eat, wear, get around on, and otherwise consume. How much does living our values matter? For us, the answer was that it matters a lot.

When the Otesha team sat down last year and talked through our key values, we identified equality, genuine participation, holistic thinking, social justice, environmental sustainability and freedom from oppression as important values that drive our approach to everything from what new programmes get developed to where we get our funding and how we run team meetings. Our shift to a non-hierarchical structure was also part of aligning ourselves more fully with our values.


For us, living and breathing our values was incredibly important. It’s given us much greater credibility with our stakeholders, especially young people, ensured that we always had a dedicated and committed staff team, and inspired a ripple effect of change in other organizations.

Why might articulating & acting on your values matter?

Credibility: If you are an environmental non-profit based in a green building, a sustainability communications agency that gives employees extra vacation days for low-carbon travel, or a youth organization that’s actually led by young people, you will come across as more authentic and genuinely committed to your goals. And most importantly, you’ll actually be more authentic and genuinely committed to your goals.

Staff commitment & retention: If you lay your values out clearly, you will attract people who share your values. If you live your values internally as well as promote them externally, I’d wager that you’ll create a pretty great place to work – an inspiring, game-changing place even. At Otesha, we found incredible team members who were specifically attracted to our cooperative decision-making and who looked forward to the job as a chance to make some lifestyle changes they always intended to do but needed some support with (like cycling in London – eep!).

Better strategic decisions: Shared values are a great way to assess whether a particular partnership, collaboration or funding relationship will be a good fit. New initiatives can also be sussed out this way, weeding out ideas that don’t align completely with your values. I’ve learned the hard way that some potential partners might look great on paper, but turn out as a disaster in real life because of a values mismatch. And now I know that I work best with people who believe that social and environmental issues are deeply interconnected, genuinely value and want to encourage deep participation, and get excited about creativity and innovation.

Broaden your impact: By working in a way that’s aligned with your values, you might inspire other organizations to do the same. Otesha’s had loads of interest in our Corporate Screening Policy that determines what businesses we will and won’t take money from. Several organizations have said they’re looking at implementing a non-hierarchical working structure based on our success. And people are consistently asking us about the most low-impact ways to refurbish their offices or plan their next holiday.

Brave new (flat) world

Update: I also wrote a more detailed version of this blog for the Guardian website: Non-hierarchical structures: could it work for you?

Lately there’s been some buzz about how us kids today are working in very different ways than more established entrepreneurs, leaders and campaigners.

According to people who write about these sorts of things, we’re more collaborative, less comfortable with hierarchy and top-down decision-making, more likely to change jobs and more ready to embrace creative chaos of collective working. And as we change how we organise ourselves, we’re slowly shaping the landscape around us too.

From my personal experience, this rings absolutely true. The places I’ve loved working most have been where everyone got involved in decision-making and had a stake in the success of the project, and the ones I’ve struggled in the most have been rigidly hierarchical. I would far prefer to embrace a little uncertainty and even confusion than feel like I’m not an equal partner in whatever I’m doing.

The organisation that I founded five years ago, the Otesha Project UK, has spent the past year transitioning to a flat structure. We were always pretty collaborative, but decision-making authority and hierarchies of responsibility definitely existed.

During this process we’ve learned a lot about what needs to be in place to make collaborative working healthy and productive, rather than simply chaotic.

What does it take to make this work?

Will the caveat that we’re in an ongoing process and haven’t nearly finished learning, here’s what I see as crucial to the success of any collaborative venture:

A commitment to process. Developing & refining internal processes can seem long, tedious and beside the point. When held up against the incredibly urgent and important work of fulfilling your social mission, figuring out how meetings should be held or salary structures decided can seem like a distraction from the ‘real’ work. And yet, if you don’t spend time and energy thinking about these things, any collaborative venture is likely to become rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings, and won’t have the systems in place to function well over the long run. Reading this article from the founder of a non-hierarchical company (Bill Witherspoon of The Sky Factory) you can see how often he mentions team meetings, decision-making and training policies.

Everyone on board. Everyone who matters needs to be involved from the start, and everyone needs to be committed to investing the development time needed to ensure smooth working later down the line. In my experience, every single member of staff needed to have immense amounts of trust for other members of the team, enthusiasm for our collective experiment, and love for our work. Trustees and other key stakeholders (including investors or funders if applicable) should also be involved as early as possible.

Patience and flexibility. It will take time. And things will go wrong. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between something that’s not working and something that simply needs more time. If you’re transitioning away from a hierarchical structure, have lots of patience with yourself and other team members. Much like other times of organisational transition, it takes time to adapt to new ways of working.

Clarity in decision-making.  Especially important for when tricky decisions come up and the team just can’t agree on what to do. In these cases, without a clear process there will be a tendency for some team members to pull rank or exercise informal influence, which just leads to invisible power structures. At Otesha, we know that if we can’t reach consensus as a team after several tries with different facilitators, then we pass the decision-making authority up to the board. This hasn’t happened yet and we hope it never will, but it’s essential to know that a lack of consensus won’t ever be able to cripple our ability to get our work done.

Clarity in roles. Since shared responsibility inevitably leads to more bleed amongst roles, the more clarity you can embed from the outset the better. Especially when it comes to the ‘boring’ administrative tasks. At Otesha, all co-directors have a core administrative role, from HR to finance to office management, that rotates around every two years. We also have a rule that no voluntary or paid role will ever be purely administrative.

A team of great communicators. Prioritize team training in anything that builds communication, listening and facilitation skills. You will all need them.

A strategy for growth. Collaborative working is easy when teams are small. At Otesha, as we’ve grown from 6 staff members to 10 total (5 co-directors and 5 learning roles without administrative responsibilities), we’re already starting to see the need to adapt our decision-making model for more efficiency. As we continue to grow, we’ll need to find ways of sharing information and ownership without involving every single person in every single decision.

Overall, our transition to a flat structure has been a really exciting adventure, one that’s aligned our working style with our ethos and values. The whole team feels a much stronger sense of ownership for not just their direct work but for the organisation as a whole. And for me, as the former Executive Director, it’s been amazing to share the workload, celebrate successes and talk through challenges with 4 other co-directors, knowing that we all take equal responsibility for the outcome of any decision, big or small.

People power meets pedal power

Cross-posted from the Otesha Project UK blog

It’s no secret that at Otesha we love bikes. It’s also no secret that we think green & decent jobs are super important if we’re going to find a good way forward out of this whole ecological/economic collapse situation (let’s face it, it’s kind of a mess right now).

Recently I wrote a blog enthusing the power of worker-owned cooperatives because when the jobs aren’t there, why the heck not make them ourselves, right? This time around, I wanted to follow up on my mostly American example by showcasing some homegrown people-powered projects.

So, enter Brixton Cycles and the Edinburgh Bike Co-op – two lovely places that between them have created hundreds of jobs, including more than 120 co-op owners, since they opened their doors. Both of them operate on the same basic system – if you’re a co-op member then you’ve got equal rights, equal responsibilities and equal ownership. No member is higher up the food chain than another, and no member is immune to the risks that come along with any kind of businesses. Both shops take on workers on a trial period, where after a year of employment they become eligible to join the co-op. Right now, Brixton Cycles has 13 co-op members and the Edinburgh Bike Co-op (which has also opened shops in Aberdeen, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield) has around 100.

If you want to know more, I’d recommend reading up on the Brixton Cycles history and checking out this article on what it means to Edinburgh Bicycles Co-op to work cooperatively.

And this year is the UN’s international year of co-operatives, which aims “to raise public awareness of the invaluable contributions of cooperative enterprises to poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.” Hear, hear!

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