9 tips for doing a participatory strategy (Part I)

By Sati Houston (Consultant)

Within the philanthropic sector, there are streams of conversation around shifting power, such as trust-based philanthropy, decolonizing philanthropy, and furthering equity. 

Participatory approaches have gained ground within mainstream philanthropy in the last  decade. While participatory grantmaking has been much discussed, its less discussed siblings in budgeting, evaluation, and strategy are being quietly utilized by nonprofits, INGOs, philanthropic funders, and funder networks around the world.  

All participatory practices bring a spotlight onto shifting power, especially decision-making power. But participatory strategy brings a sharper focus to a specific set of decisions: What do we want to achieve over the next few years? What role do we want to play in the world? Where will we focus our work and resources?

These decisions dictate the tradeoffs made, the priorities set, and the flow of resources. These decisions affect everything downstream, from programs to partnerships, fundraising to operations.

But what role do our communities play in making these decisions? 

Are they a bystander, someone who is impacted by the outcome but has little recourse to change it? 

Are they a contributor, providing critical insights and feedback that strengthen the overall result?

Do they pose the tradeoffs to be made and craft recommendations, shepherding the process to its culmination? 

Do they own the process and its myriad of decisions, holding the final say over the next era of work? 

Many have asked me “What is participatory strategy?”. The honest answer is that it is a process by which institutions interrogate and investigate their structural power: the power they have to make choices and limit the choices of others. The power they have to set the direction and the guardrails others have to abide by. 

“With structural power, we have the possibility of limiting other people’s access to resources, of narrowing their options, and of making choice difficult for them to exercise because of possible consequences we may deliver… Because others bring habitual fear of consequences into every relationship of power difference, it can be invisible to us that we are getting our needs met at their expense.”

– Miki Kashtan

At its finest, participatory strategy is a transformative process that results in more than just a new strategic direction. It can restructure a movement or reconnect it with its roots. It can shift an organization’s culture to include more consultation and civil discourse with those outside the organization. It can provide a mechanism for identifying who in power is enabling or impeding change.

No strategic process is the same, and participatory strategy is no different. There is no recipe, beyond contextualizing and leveraging a plethora of participatory practices during design, discussion, and decision making. 

But there is a spectrum of participation and power sharing within every participatory strategic process. It’s an organizational choice where you want to sit on that spectrum. 

“[Doing a participatory strategy] means listening to the constituents you are accountable to. It means adjusting. It means correcting. It means being intentional. It also requires you to revise every aspect of your work. It requires you to look at your institutional design, your governance structure, your decision making processes, the organizational culture, all the way to actual process to designing and implementing the strategic planning process. Do we have the infrastructure for a process like that? And if not, can we design it? 

– Ana Pecova, Deputy Director at Prospera the International Network of Women’s Funds

The most common question I’m asked is “How do I do a participatory strategy, of any kind?”.

Last year, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative brought together five practitioners of participatory strategy from international NGOs, nonprofits, and philanthropic funder networks to share their insights into what truly matters when embarking on this journey. 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing our top nine tips for how to do a participatory strategy. These represent the collective wisdom of myself and:

  • Ana Pecova, Deputy Director at Prospera the International Network of Women’s Funds
  • Natalia Tariq, Resource Mobilisation Coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications
  • Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory 
  • Tanveer Hasan, Senior Program Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation

This week, we’ll begin with five tips for designing the process itself.


1. Articulate the differential value a participatory strategic process will bring to your organization and your work. 

For those new to the space of participatory practices, participatory elements can feel like a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. Moreover, they can be perceived as nice-to-have elements that take up more time and resources. 

Before imagining where you want more participation, articulate why greater participation and power sharing matters. Why does it matter to your program, team or organization? What do you expect to be different at the end of the process? 

“The first and most important question would be: ‘Why do you want to do a participatory strategy process? What does it mean for your institution or for your network?’… Do [a participatory strategy] not only because everyone is talking about participatory strategy right now. Do it because you believe in it. Do it because it’s the only possible way to lead to meaningful change where communities design, own and lead their way to the change they want to see.

Ana Pecova, Deputy Director at Prospera the International Network of Women’s Funds


2. Utilize design principles to articulate the big-picture change goals of the process. 

Design principles are a common tool to generate upfront alignment and buy-in when shaping a change process. Within a participatory strategic process, design principles are especially useful to frame and prompt upfront conversations with those in power about a strategic process that will interrogate power. 

It can be tempting to use “equity” as a design principle, but a survey of 15 American-based foundations in 2016 found that most did not have an “official” definition of equity, despite the organization’s focus on it. 

“Many foundations appear to guide their work via intuition rather than a clear definition [of equity]. We did find that foundations with a clear definition [of equity] seemed to have codified equity theories of change, frameworks, and plans more completely than those foundations that had no clear definition.” 

Source: “The Road to Achieving Equity”: Findings and Lessons from a Field Scan of Foundations That Are Embracing Equity as a Primary Focus

Ensure your design principles are adequately and contextually defined, so they resonate with those both in and outside your organization, with those in and outside the structure of power. 

“For CARE International, the [design principles of our participatory strategic] process were very intentionally related to a principle that the organization was already aligned [on] which was rebalancing the northern-dominated flow of expertise, resources, decisions, and formal power spaces… That was one of the design principles that we got an endorsement from the very outset so that it could be a thread that went through how we shaped process, consultation, decision points, communication points… Prioritize the critical [design principle] you’re going to pay the most attention to and integrate and embed into every part of how the process is designed.

Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory 


3. Decide collectively who will make decisions. 

All strategic processes can be viewed as a series of decisions: Who will participate? Who will identify and reconcile tradeoffs? Who will build recommendations? How will the final decision or ratification be made? 

While gathering broader and deeper input provides an avenue for greater participation, these avenues do not automatically share power. 

“[Participatory approaches are] really about contributing to shifting power structures. These processes should not just be for the theatrics, the performative element. It cannot be extractive, and just shift more responsibilities onto people who are overburdened. It has to be about giving people real decision making power.”

Natalia Tariq, Resource Mobilisation Coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications

When designing your next strategic process, identify the compendium of decisions to be made and draft who will make them. What role do your communities play in actually recommending or deciding?  

“Decision points are a key thing to be clear from the outset… [During our global strategic process in 2010] there was a real intentional effort and process to set up large participatory engagement for the input and listening. But then it felt like it stopped and then went to ‘the powers that be’ for a decision. That’s often the transition point that is the most challenging for participatory processes…Once it gets beyond this very active and participatory listening, inputting and feeding in what then happens for it to be consolidated, decided on, taken forward?… Transparency and clarity around those decision points [is key], so that it’s not [a situation of] ‘this is participatory until it’s not’.”

Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory 


4. This is not a choice between “No participation” and “Being extractive”. Rather, design how the process will replenish the motivation of its participants. 

The fear of being extractive or causing burnout are common concerns when considering a participatory process. It’s especially true when it comes to volunteers. Asking a community member for their input feels doable; asking them to orchestrate your organization’s next strategy can feel like a burden. 

“Strategic processes are not very straightforward. These are often very time intensive and resource intensive. [At APC] we keep that in mind because we heavily draw on these collaborative processes but at the same time we do realize that they take a lot for the participants. We don’t want these processes to be extractive for the stakeholders that are involved.”

Natalia Tariq, Resource Mobilisation Coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications

But the fear of asking too much shouldn’t preclude the usage of participatory processes. 

Rather, bring thoughtful attention to how you generate excitement at the beginning and how you’ll replenish and shore up that wellspring as the process progresses. Burnout is all too common. So as we ask more of staff and volunteers, it needs to come with increased resources and attention to the most precious resource: motivation. 

“Motivation is one of the key indicators of how healthy your process is… [We] imagine a process that has high levels of engagement and a very little component of endurance, but if you look at the way a process develops, the engagement quotient comes down drastically and the endurance quotient goes up…

If you are not able to retain a high quotient of motivation, most participatory strategies will fall apart. In the process that we ran within the Wikimedia Foundation…one thing that was very clear was that the motivation that needs to be supplemented [during the process] is not the same motivation that we started with”

Tanveer Hasan, Senior Program Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation


5. Invest in the underlying infrastructure that will enable participation, e.g. childcare, facilitation, translation, documentation, financial support, and internet access, etc. 

Strong orchestration, facilitation, documentation, translation, and communication are just some of the critical elements that allow a participatory process to succeed. This underlying infrastructure enables people to join and leave the process at different points, to understand and buy-in to the decisions made without them, and to discuss and disagree in productive ways. 

Rather than framing this infrastructure as costs to be minimized, reframe them as key enablers that have outsized impact on the end outcome. 

“[One] critical thing is strong facilitation…Somebody’s got to be shepherding and convening and connecting the dots between these various pieces of the proces. Who is inputting what and into what? How [information is] being brought together, taken to a decision, and then moved to the next stage? That strong facilitation is… what makes [a participatory process] run smoothly and work, in a way that can be a quicker pace than people often assume participatory processes [operate].”

Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory 

Beyond the process itself, consider how you can enable your participants to show up fully. An unfortunate truth is that those with the ability to participate are often those with the socio-economic means to do so, especially when contribution is unpaid. What support do your participants need in their everyday life in order to show up as you’ve requested? 

“[For] the last two years, much of [APC’s donor] advocacy has been centered around how the pandemic is affecting the lives of individuals and organizations, and how it has affected the pace at which they can work [and] the additional resources they need. 

We’ve managed to convince [some donors] that when you are budgeting for online events we need to create more space for people to be able [contribute]. You need to give people resources for connectivity because not everybody will have the same access, so we make sure there’s a stipend for that. We keep in mind that if somebody is connecting for a five hour meeting from their home they probably have to take care of meals or they need child care, and we need to provide for that to happen. There is an assumption that if people are working from home or they are working in the virtual space that all of these things magically take care of themselves. [So] we’ve had those conversations with funders [about this].”

Natalia Tariq, Resource Mobilisation Coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications

To learn more about how to approach participatory strategy, visit the Transparency and Accountability Initiative’s Library on Participatory Strategy

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