How to unlock a participatory strategy: Five key enablers create the conditions for success

A year ago, funder members of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) posed a question: How could they apply the tenets of participatory grantmaking to their strategic processes?

It turned out to be a hard question to answer. While participatory grantmaking has been much discussed, its less-discussed siblings in budgeting, evaluation, and strategy are being quietly utilized around the world. This meant there is a dearth in publicly-available, practical advice on the subject of “participatory strategy.”

As a result, TAI brought together myself and four other practitioners of participatory strategy to share our insights into what truly matters when embarking on this journey, the highlights of which are shared throughout this article.

The full set of insights and resources shared by this group are now available as a resource library. It aims to illuminate what is (and isn't) a participatory strategy, showcase how funders and nonprofits have done it, and offers insight into the spectrum of participation and power-sharing involved.

This chart explores community members' involvement in participatory grantmaking, implied levels of participation, and shared decision making power.

Shifting to a participatory strategic process can be transformative. 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. It can provide a mechanism for identifying who in power is enabling or impeding change.

But how can funders create the conditions for success? Five key enablers make a difference.

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 element that takes up too much time and resources.

Before jumping into creating a new process, investigate and articulate why this different approach matters. What do you expect to be different at the end of the process if you invite more participation and share your power?

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 an 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.

Especially when current or prospective grantees may become involved, those designing the strategic process need to consider if there is sufficient trust between funder and grantee to unlock the process.

“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… The correlation between 'the power that is shared' and 'the [strategic] output that is expected' is not in the favor of those 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 Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation

Create a recurring practice around detecting biases

We all suffer from biases that make it difficult for certain people, perspectives and ideas to be fully included within our processes.

“Think about ‘Who is it we are including?’. No matter who 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 [participatory] processes that we go beyond the usual suspects.”
— Natalia Tariq, Resource Mobilization Coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications

Building a practice of attending to bias is stronger than doing it once. 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 space to pull out implicit assumptions and challenge them.

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?

“Having a really thoughtful strategy for how anybody with [vested] 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. Doing so could undermine a process, which then damages those who've participated.”
— Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory

Part of the internal change process is shepherding those with power through a process of reckoning and reconciliation: through seeing the breadth and depth of their power (formal and informal), the impact it’s had on others, and the value of shifting to share power. These conversations become their own stream of work, one that brings repeated attention back to how an organization and the strategic process embody equity.

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

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

Every practitioner mentioned in this article – representing experiences at Prospera INWF, APC, CARE International, Wikimedia – have gone through multiple strategic processes, where they have learned what does and doesn’t work for their context. Rather than aiming for perfection, they have aimed for progress.

“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 of Prospera INWF

To learn more about how to approach participatory strategy, visit the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI)’s Library on Participatory Strategy. TAI is a collaborative of funders working toward a world where citizens are informed and empowered, governments are open and responsive, and collective action advances the public good.

About the author(s)

Strategy consultant