The Best Way To Put Clients First Is To Let Them Lead!

Dr. Marc Spencer, Blue Avocado

Those of us who work at nonprofits are drawn to a particular mission and a desire to do good and give back. Most of us have navigated our careers thoughtfully and intentionally and have worked hard (perhaps even tirelessly). Yet often, despite our good intentions and hard work, we find ourselves replicating the practices that created the inequity we committed to disrupt in the first place.

Specifically, we tend to forget who our clients are at nonprofits. We become so focused on our donors, boards, and staff that we can lose sight of our clients and whether our efforts are meeting their needs and priorities. We assume that our research, experience, and desire to do good work are sufficient qualifications for staff and board to make the critical decisions toward achieving our mission.

This means that we frequently make decisions that impact those we serve without engaging them in the decision-making process. Chances are that not including our clients—those who will be most directly impacted by our decisions—contributed to the inequity that motivated the nonprofit’s founding in the first place.

Staff and board members may not share similar backgrounds to those you serve, and failing to take into consideration needs identified by your community undermines your impact by not creating a sense of ownership and partnership with your clients, creating a lack of alignment across the organization, and potentially wasting lots of your time internally crafting solutions that may not be appropriate.

This very situation was playing itself out when I joined Summer Search—an organization that unleashes students’ potential through mentoring and transformative experiences—a year ago.

I did a listening tour in my first month and heard these themes:

  • Staff and alumni felt that the current mission, with its sole focus of earning a college degree, was not meeting and supporting the realities of the young people we serve;
  • Students and alumni were eager to be more involved in running the organization; and
  • Decision making needed to be more inclusive.

Clearly things needed to shift.

We launched a process to define our mission and priorities for the next three years by forming an inclusive strategic planning committee with a range of stakeholders—students, alumni, parents, partners, donors, staff, and board members. We interviewed and surveyed these stakeholder groups extensively.

And it’s no surprise that by including students, alumni, and parents in both the research and decision-making phases, we crafted a mission and priorities that are now supported by most stakeholders. After all, the Summer Search community is drawn to the work because they believe that all young people should be able to fulfill their potential despite systemic inequities and the zip code in which they are born.

Internal tension and disagreements began to dissipate when the voices of those we serve were engaged in dialogue and decision-making. Now our challenge is to include these voices as part of how we lead going forward. How might we share power with those we seek to support? What structures can we put in place to be more inclusive with decision-making?

While we don’t have definitive answers, we are taking a few steps in this journey to pursue a more student-centered approach to operating, including:

  • Creating a student and family council that participates in key decisions;
  • Opening board meetings to staff, students, families, and alumni;
  • Holding board meetings in the communities we serve;
  • Investing in equity and liberation training for staff and board members (our senior leaders did a training with 228 accelerator;
  • Finding ways to solicit input from our student clients that are quick and efficient (e.g., text polls/voting); and
  • Continuing to hire alumni as staff.

We’ve even discussed sharing the CEO role with a student and one day we hope Summer Search will have an alumnus/alumna as CEO.