9 tips for doing a participatory strategy (Part II)

By Sati Houston (Consultant)

The rule of thumb is that an organization’s strategy should be updated every three to five years. During my five years at the Wikimedia Foundation, I went through a strategy process almost every year. 

Each process wasn’t called strategy per se, but they all looked alike: there was new research into how our foundation needed to adapt; new consultants making recommendations; new calls to action for staff and volunteer feedback. But too often we wound up in the same place: the “priorities” we defined rarely stuck, and we had to start again. 

The impact of this cycle was more detrimental than the supposed upside. Our strategic planning and annual planning blurred together. Burned-out staff began to disconnect from the latest “strategy” process. I saw teams simply repackage existing work into new narratives because managers knew the goals would change again soon. 

The traditional methods of nonprofit strategy weren’t working. We were stuck eternally planning for the future while often doing the same things year after year. We wanted to be more strategic, but the tools we were using weren’t getting us there.

In 2017, the Wikimedia Foundation Board decided to invest in a different kind of strategy: a movement-level strategy. 

“We are currently doing good work across our movement, but [we] lack a unifying sense of how that work coheres into something greater than its individual parts… The absence of a movement strategy, in other words, is hampering our ability to work toward our mission. Given the importance of that mission… this is an expensive opportunity cost.”

— Katherine Maher, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation (2016)

Wikimedia’s 2030 strategic direction would not be determined by the input of many and the final vote of a few. The process would be widely participatory in nature, shepherded by those from the wider movement (not just staff of the Wikimedia Foundation), and decisions would be made outside the existing governance structures that were in place. 

But more so, this process would afford us the ability to interrogate not just what to focus on, but how we operated. By opening ourselves up to a more transformative process, we were able to interrogate power: how it was held structurally, how it enabled or impeded our efforts, and how we were going to shift to unlock our ambitions. 

Opening up strategic decisions to the voices of many can be at best invigorating and at worst overwhelming. The prospect of failing to shift power after grandly committing to it feels like a nightmare. 

So how can funders create the conditions for a successful participatory strategic process? Four key enablers make a difference. 


6. Lay the groundwork for a change process, not just a strategy process. 

A participatory strategic process is actually two processes in one: one is focused on defining future priorities, and the other is focused on changing the way we operate and interact. There is immense focus placed on the first process – defining strategy – and unfortunately, the second process is often a surprise. 

For organizations without a strong practice of working in the open, conducting consultations, or sharing decision-making, the shift to participatory practices can feel like a fundamental culture shift. In these cases, it becomes crucial to lay the groundwork for the change process early – sometimes far earlier – than beginning the strategy process. 

“I’ve found that the process of participatory strategy, and just participatory processes in general, can change and reshape an organization because what you’re socializing [is] ownership. You’re building the buy-in, you’re building different mechanisms for different voices to come to the fore.”

— Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory 

Participatory strategy may also represent a shift in how you’ve engaged those outside your organization. Especially as a funder, consider how you’ll navigate the uncertainty that comes from talking about power and the future in the same conversation with your grantees. How can you enable and support those who currently have less power to feel prepared and comfortable discussing a future that impacts them? 

Sharing of power is pretty easy because one already has it. But for somebody to interact with power, for somebody to become accustomed and acclimatized with power and then contribute is always tricky. In processes that come with either a stipulated date or outcome, the way that power interacts is: this is an opportunity and this is the [expected] outcome; this is the responsibility and this is supposed to be the result. The correlation between “the power that is shared” and “the output that is expected” is not in the favor of people who just enter into the conversation. It is always in the favor of people who are not just situated in power but who are also comfortable in power.

— Tanveer Hasan, Senior Program Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation


7. Create a practice around investigating biases and blind spots.

We all have biases and blind spots. When it comes to building an inclusive process, these blind spots make it difficult for us to see who is not present or not heard. 

“When we think about participatory approaches… one thing that is key is thinking about ‘Who is it we are including?’. No matter what your stakeholders are, what groups there are, there are always those more visible voices and those less visible voices. It’s our job when we design these processes, we have to go beyond the usual suspects… [For APC] we want to go beyond activists who are part of formal structures. We want to open the space of participation to informal collectives, individuals, to connectors who are working outside these formal spaces. How can we ensure that these groups have access to resources and opportunities?” 

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

Given our biases manifest in unconscious ways, building a recurring practice around identifying and addressing blind spots is the strongest approach. For example, early in the process, consider how you’re seeking out conflicting points of view, to build a more holistic picture of the issues at hand. As you consider tradeoffs, consider how you’re holding time and space in the process to pull out implicit assumptions and challenge them. 

The practice of attending to biases is more important than doing it once. How can you continue to expand your understanding, so that you can “design for everyone without understanding the full picture”?

“These blind spots… these biases, these weak spots are a result of the lack of equity and the persistent inequalities in terms of how power is distributed. Working toward equity means constantly making an effort to identify our own biases… We’re all trained to not see [and] not hear some voices. Institutions have been designed to serve the needs of some. It really is about unlearning how we know how to do things… It’s ongoing work. It’s not something that you can do only once. You really need to set up conditions for this so that it’s ongoing.

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


8. Design a thoughtful strategy around how to engage those with power. 

One of the first questions to ask before embarking on a participatory strategy (or any participatory process) is: Are those in power ready and willing to share power?

“Vested power is very hard to change overnight. Anyone in the business of social change [is] very aware of that. Having a really thoughtful strategy for how anybody with that type of power, authority, and resources is engaged and brought along is a critical part of the design process… Don’t underestimate paying attention to power and politics, and the formal spaces that are there. Because that [is a] make or break. [Underestimating power and politics could] undermine a process, which then damages those who’ve participated.” 

— Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory 

Today, a lot of onus is placed on the individual to understand the power and privilege they hold, and how they might address the inequities that result. But when it comes to an organization or network – which is both a group of people and an entity itself – it’s not practical to hope that the individual reflections of many will coalesce into collective understanding. Not without some prompting and structure. Add in the complex regulatory constraints of international organizations and it becomes clear that wrangling a conversation on “governance and equity” is a whole process to itself. 

“In any complex, confederated structures, the governance arrangements are really complex. You have a lot of stakeholders with a lot of power and perspectives, and their own independent reporting, regulatory and governance jurisdictions that all come to bear. While it would be easier to set up the ideal kind of governance model first, I don’t think that’s usually the pragmatic approach to take because those sorts of changes are hard and they take time. Waiting around until that gets sorted [is] not practical…

[Instead] be really thoughtful about how the process itself can reveal certain deficiencies in the system… It can reveal the entrenched power dynamics… That can often be the most telling and the best use of the process: to reveal our institutional issues that can then be course corrected. [For example] within an organization I worked [with], the process itself identified significant blockers who had significant power. [It resulted in] an intentional process to remove them [from the board] because they were really holding back the rest of the organization… It was only through the process that was really revealed, how entrenched that [dynamic] was.”

— Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory 

Remember that internal change process that I mentioned before? Part of it is shepherding those with power through a process that supports them: seeing the breadth and depth of their power (formal and informal), the impact it’s had on others, the value of sharing their power, and the implications of doing so. Rather than one conversation, this reckoning with power is its own stream of work. It’s the workstream that brings attention repeatedly back to how an organization and the strategic process embodies equity. 

“Beyond acknowledging diversity and existing inequalities, to me equity is also about actively seeking to identify where power comes from, who holds it and why? Whose voice we do not hear and what we can do about redistributing power?… Equity is not a simple act. It is a process of active listening. It is a process of constantly correcting course. Equity is not given. Equity is rather built: it’s built together [and] it’s built collectively.

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


9. Lean into the discomfort. Be willing to take the first step, even knowing it’s not perfect. 

I often get the question, “Where do I start?”

The reality is there is no ideal starting place. Every organization that I’ve seen complete or attempt a participatory strategy has struggled in different ways. Even those who have done it many times uncover new blind spots and create new mechanisms for elevating new voices. 

Women’s funds have amazing experience when it comes to participatory grantmaking processes… However, what happens when a community does not see certain issues as relevant? Who is left behind? And this often happens within feminist movements for groups such as sex workers, trans people, and formerly incarcerated women. The movement in many contexts [does] not necessarily consider these relevant issues. So even on a level of women’s funds, they’re constantly asking themselves ‘Who are we not seeing? How can we ensure full representation and access to resources?’ It’s the same for Prospera, on a network level. We’re [always] asking ‘What are the conditions that we need? What is the infrastructure that we need?’… so that we can catch these blind spots or biases and we can do the deconstruction work.”

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

Participatory practices are a “muscle” that an organization needs to repeatedly use in order to improve. Just like with our bodies, the first time we do something new it will feel awkward, uncertain, and possibly uncomfortable. But the more we do it, the more we discover how we can improve. 

The most important step is just beginning. Define your scope of influence and take a first step within it. Commit to learning from that first foray, and also to applying those learning to the next step. 

Just start from where you’re at… Be really pragmatic about balancing what the ideal shape is and then also the reality, and just take the steps where you can… My most useful tool for bringing about longer term, bigger changes is just by starting with a simple pilot… [A] pilot with intentionality about the learning questions, the participatory nature of it, and how that can have ripple effects – [that] can be really powerful.”

— Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory 

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

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