This article comes from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s spring 2018 edition, “Dynamics and Domains: Networked Governance in Civic Space.”
The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit organization consisting of “thousands of thinkers and doers—from a new generation of leaders in every state to Nobel laureate economists—working to redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.”1 This breaks down into a central office of established academics attempting to drive the national conversation on economics, and a network of college students on more than one hundred and thirty campuses around the country who are organized into a chapter system and who work on a diverse set of public-policy-based issues. Roosevelt is constantly engaged in a number of different experiments, but the process described in this article by which a network of students worked together to write documents collectively is a self-contained, new stakeholder-engagement model.
Roosevelt’s work draws on and is informed by many other stakeholder-engagement models. Generational attitudes, new technology, and new social norms have created a “participatory society,”2 and the nongovernmental organizations around the country and the world must adapt to keep up. The notion of simply listening to stakeholders no longer sets an organization apart.
The Status Quo
Many organizations have a very narrow or linear version of what makes for good engagement. Volunteers are asked for money or for concrete actions that are designed so that anyone can do them: letter writing, representative calling, social media engagement, and other tasks that fulfill an organizational need. An offshoot of this narrow engagement is the sort of polling that organizations such as MoveOn.org do in agenda setting. These polls are democratic, in that anyone in the organization’s universe can participate, and useful for accomplishing such tasks as picking two new campaigns or focus areas from a list.
From the far, other side of the engagement spectrum, there are organizations that provide a looser platform for individuals to make use of. This can take the form of tools, like survey-gathering platforms open to any cause (Change.org),3 or it can take the form of a more holistic suite of services that are customizable to the needs of different campaigns (NationBuilder, Wellstone, and the like). Roosevelt resembled one of these organizations in its conception and early years.
These two extremes, which I will define here as the narrow linear end and the open sandbox end, are both useful for certain stakeholder types and certain organizational needs. In its ideal form, Roosevelt exemplifies a hybrid of these two theories of engagement, and can split the difference between the two.
Theories in Play
There are multiple theories of how to deepen engagement with stakeholders and reap the benefits such engagement can bring. Judy Freiwirth’s notion of Community-Engagement Governance™ hinges on breaking down traditional barriers among nonprofit staff, board, stakeholders, and other constituents.4 Her framework posits a robust set of systems for incorporating feedback and expertise into decision making, and it suggests that any organization that engages its stakeholders in such a manner will see benefits not only to decision making but also to stakeholder buy-in and connection to the organization. This plays out in the collaboration among students, alumni, and staff that happened at Roosevelt around its collective writing process, with a clear increase in organizational buy-in as well as superior outcomes. The Roosevelt example differs from Freiwirth’s focus on board-level decisions, however; while the project was part of the organization’s mission and goal setting and did engage board members to a certain extent, it did not focus on board-level decisions.
Other studies of stakeholder engagement focus on board governance as vital to how NGOs operate. Chao Guo and Juliet Musso define what “representation” (an oft-cited concept) means for organizations, categorizing different dimensions that representation in a nonprofit can take. The categories include substantive, symbolic, formal, descriptive, and participatory representation, and the article then subdivides those categories into ways in which organizations archive representation (formal, descriptive, and participatory), and ways in which organizations go about standing for their members and exercising that representation in terms of using power (substantive and symbolic). Guo and Musso argue that an “organization can enhance its representational capacity by establishing representative structures through which the views and concerns of its constituents and the larger community are represented by those who speak on their behalf in the organization.”5 This gives us a useful framework for discussing Roosevelt, as the organization attempted to create avenues for undergraduate college student stakeholders to hold substantive, symbolic, and participatory representation during different moments of the work.
Another particularly relevant case study tracks the role of how Italian bank foundations have handled community representations, and extrapolates that role to the Guo and Musso framework above.6 This analysis unearths a new set of mechanisms to be used in situations in which the community is legally required to be on the board and is thus baked into the decision making of the organization. This places Roosevelt in the context of organizations that have built in representation structurally at the board level, but also shows the limited methods and outcomes that are available for board-level stakeholder engagement.
Jason Mogus and Tom Liacas studied multiple organizations and outlined four key ways that nonprofits were making effective change. Successfully networked organizations, in their rubric, open themselves to grassroots power, build cross-movement network hubs, frame a compelling cause, and run with focus and discipline.7 Roosevelt’s collective writing processes engaged with the first, second, and fourth points of the Mogus/Liacas rubric, being driven by the grassroots power of the student chapters and featuring collaboration between chapters networked together while still providing a strong focus and direction from the central office of the institution. The view that a nonprofit that implements these theories will be more likely to build successful advocacy campaigns and make long-term change is perhaps the most utilitarian look at engagement discussed here.8
Roosevelt as an Example of a New Version of Stakeholder Engagement
The Roosevelt networks, with their college students loosely affiliated in chapters around the country, are useful to study as NGOs emblematic of a new generation’s preferences and desires. The theories that were applied in the collective writing processes are not new, but the application—in an age where many promise engagement, and a stakeholder’s ability to detect deception is at an all-time high—is instructive and perhaps unique. Given the limited number of people who can participate at the level of being on a board or substantively contributing to the high-level direction of an organization, these processes can be used as an example of how to blend participation and representation as well as linear and sandbox engagement techniques.
The creation of the Next Generation Blueprint for 2016 (NGB) is useful for understanding how this sort of