The following article will appear in a special issue of the National Civic Review titled Philanthropy & Resident Engagement: The Promise for Democracy, available October 2013. It will feature case studies, reports, and essays on the resident engagement experiences of public and private foundations. This article was co-authored by Barry Knight, Director of CENTRIS-UK, and Albert Ruesga, President & CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
It goes by many names: citizen participation; community or resident engagement; “bottom-up” grantmaking; grassroots philanthropy. For some community foundations in the US, it’s a pro-forma exercise; for others, a source of power and pride. For a significant number it’s still little more than a fond dream, something wished for but somehow never attained.
When program officers and other community foundation leaders speak of stakeholder engagement, they often point to the desire to have their grantmaking interventions “informed” or “shaped” by the communities they serve. These philanthropic professionals might go a step further—at least rhetorically—and seek the “meaningful participation” of underserved communities in the design and leadership of grantmaking programs. The expression of these desires is sometimes motivated by a regard for democratic ideals or by a sincere respect for self-determination. It might spring from a deep respect for fairness or an adherence to some form of the Golden Rule. Stakeholder engagement might at times be sought to put a democratic patina on what are essentially elite decisions.
Whatever their source, calls for resident engagement have become normative in the field, as reflected, for example, in the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations publication titled Do Nothing About Me Without Me: An Action Guide for Engaging Stakeholders (Bourns, 2010). The primary argument here is one about efficacy: Foundations that engage stakeholders are “part of a growing movement in philanthropy—a movement founded on the belief that grantmakers are more effective to the extent that they meaningfully engage their grantees and other key stakeholders” (Bourns, 2010; 1, emphasis mine).
And yet, when do our efforts to make our grantmaking less “top-down” move from the token to the meaningful? Beyond the norms of professionalism, beyond the demands of our philanthropic technocracy, is there a moral dimension to the requirement that our grantmaking efforts be more citizen-informed and directed?
Fortunately for organized philanthropy, the issue of how to understand and assess resident engagement efforts is not new. In 1969, for example, Sherry Arnstein published a powerful article addressing these key issues (Arnstein, 1969). She proposed a typology, called the “ladder of citizen participation,” that has been widely used. Her typology looked like this:
Ultimately for Arnstein, citizen participation is about citizen power. The ladder reproduced in Figure 1 is designed to highlight the “critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power to affect the outcome of the process.” The higher up the ladder you go, the greater the degree of citizen empowerment. At rung four, for example, we invite citizen opinions but offer no assurance that these views will be heeded. At rung five, we place a token number of the “worthy” poor on advisory committees and the like, but “[i]f they are not accountable to a constituency in the community and if the traditional power elite hold the majority of seats, the have-nots can be easily outvoted and outfoxed” (Arnstein, 1969; 9). And so it goes as we climb or, in many cases, descend the ladder of engagement. For in the world of community foundations, the kind of resident engagement that Ms. Arnstein holds up as the ideal—full citizen control—is rare or perhaps nonexistent, at least in the US context.
In what follows, the authors attempt to answer three primary questions:
- How do we understand the community foundation engagement of residents and other stakeholders and why is it important?
- How well suited is the community foundation to the task of resident engagement?
- What does successful resident engagement look like?
It’s certainly easy for community foundations to claim some form of citizen engagement. But as we shall see, there are reasons why it’s difficult to do well.