If you read even half of what I write on this blog you’ll know that participation is a regular topic. A theme almost.
Many years ago I realised that the best kind of social impact is designed by the people who will benefit from that social impact. I’ve also seen that the best way to monitor and assess impact is to ask the people who were supposed to benefit whether they actually did.
This is always true, and will always be true. It is not appropriate or clever for only a few to decide what appropriate social impact looks like, who should benefit from that impact, or where that impact should be realised. I know many large organisations will rally against this and say that they cannot construct global strategies that will keep donors happy by relying on beneficiaries to set the priorities. My response is a little blunt and straightforward: you’re in the wrong business. Social impact isn’t about keeping large multi-national NGOs in business. It isn’t about prioritising smaller local community organisations either. Social impact is about putting the stakeholders front and centre and keeping them there. I’ve seen large organisations both succeed and fail at this, just as much as small organisations succeed and fail at this. But the really successful organisations have something in common; they have learned how to keep the stakeholder voice alive and loud within the strategy and the organisation.
Some of the more successful ways of doing this include running a network or a movement rather than a structured organisation (Extinction Rebellion), adopting a distributed model, with autonomous teams on the ground (Buurtzorg). What really matters in these structures is that the individuals involved are trusted by the organisation to do the job and deliver results. This is really important if participation is going to be meaningful: trust people to get the job done and they will, especially if they are part of the community that is affected by your intervention.
No one can ever guarantee that you will achieve your mission. But I can assure you that you will improve the quality and reach of your social impact if you structure your intervention and your organisation to put the stakeholders in the middle. That might mean that your organisation shrinks or grows – so what. You’ll be doing the right job, for the right people, in the right place, at the right time.
And what about the donors I hear you ask? Well, what about them……? Your job is to solve big social or environmental issues, not keep donors happy.