12 Critical Points on Stakeholder Engagement from the Sweet Briar Experience

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Briar-plants

July 1, 2015; LinkedIn

Many readers will have been following our coverage of the Sweet Briar College controversy. The board of the college voted in March to close the institution this summer. They were apparently unaware that they did not own but were only stewards of the college. That stewardship carries accountability to a larger group and in today’s world, that larger group of co-owners can organize quickly if they believe they have been badly represented. In the end, the stakeholders who protested the board’s action, took the college back this past month.

With its renewed board set to be installed today and Philip C. Stone ready to take the presidential helm tomorrow, if, as is expected, he is elected by the board later today, Sweet Briar will be closely watched. While many resources may have been lost since the controversy started in March, many have also been surfaced and made available through the engagement of stakeholders.

In The Pulse, this week, Mark Jones reminds us of the critical importance of engagement of stakeholders and it is a great general reminder for all nonprofits with constituencies that can be mobilized. I am shortening his points here and changing the word alumni to stakeholders (wherever you see bolding) but the column is worth reading in the original.

1.Alumni (stakeholders/constituents) can and should be integral partners in advancing our institutions: While the utility of our graduates is often measured solely by their financial contributions, philanthropic support is only one way that alumni can engage with and support our mission, goals and needs:  They can also help identify and recruit future students, provide advice and counsel to our leaders, offer career guidance to current and former students, sponsor internships, participate in lobbying activities, and participate in a range of other volunteer programs.  And as institutions that have done this effectively, if you engage alumni via these other avenues, their strengthened connections to their school tends to eventually prompt greater financial support.                                                                                                                            

2.When we marginalize, dismiss or ignore our stakeholders/constituents we do so at our own peril

3.For constituents to be true partners, we must keep them informed—and do so with both truth and candor:  A colleague of mine often says that “if you keep people in the dark, their natural response is to imagine the worst.”

4.If constituents don’t know about our challenges and needs, they can’t help us with them:                                                                                      

5.To achieve full constituent engagement, we must take the initiative to invite alumni to the table:  Alumni should have opportunities to shape the future of their institutions

6.Beware of creating “insiders” and “outsiders” among our constituents:

7.A focus on mega-gifts donors can marginalize those who aren’t: Our growing reliance upon “mega-gifts” and the efforts to cultivate those who can make them may be exacerbating the divide between “insiders” and “outsiders.” 

8.Keeping promises matters

9.Self-perpetuating boards become insular and lose touch with other stakeholders.

10.Stakeholder/constituent engagement and fundraising are not spigots that can be turned on and off at will.

11.Stakeholder/constituent engagement and fundraising programs are more like huge heavy flywheels:  In his celebrated 2001 book, Good to Great, Jim Collins employed the metaphor of an enormous, stationery flywheel (one he described as 30 feet in diameter, weighing 5,000 pounds and rotating on a two-foot-thick axle) to explain the level of effort, patience and persistence necessary to transform an organization. Collins noted that it takes substantial initial force and exertion to get the metaphorical flywheel to move, as well as consistent application of energy in one direction over time to build real momentum and to ultimately achieve a breakthrough.

12.Building powerful, productive constituent engagement and fundraising programs takes time:  If we want to realize truly effective, productive and transformative results in our alumni programs and our fundraising efforts, we have to make adequate strategic investments in those programs, exercise patience and allow time for them to take develop, and never take our foot off the pedal once we achieve the outcomes and momentum we are seeking.

Jones’ points are excellent reminders for every nonprofit. As we have said, engaged constituents can be your boon or bane – your choice. – Ruth McCambridge

  • kbarrettbaker

    Wonderful article Ms. Maccambridge, wise, and thank you! I was informed very early on by a lawyer friend that “Stakeholder” treatment would be taken into account by the Justices, within this round, grey matter we call the Law. Yes, the entire Sweet Briar Community was very badly treated by a few who thought they could secretly and suddenly close the school.Thank goodness justice won! #SWEETBRIAR

  • Judy Brown Fletcher

    Loved your article, but please, we are alumnae! So glad that President Stone is in place and that Sweet Briar will flourish for another century or two.