Transparency & Community Engagement: Part 3

Sunflower - backlit

From Parts 1 & 2 of this series, we begin to see how much can be accomplished by authentic, transparent community engagement – the power of gardening in the front yard.

The following are some of my observations as we’ve worked to put transparent engagement into practice in the various organizations we have founded over the years.  These are in no particular order, nor are they intended to prove any particular point except that there is much to think about as we consider doing our work in the most engaged and authentic way possible.

  1. Transparent community engagement starts by sharing the end goal, and only then engages the means brought to the mix by others. What makes the brew rich, then, is not just the shared means, but the larger goal that creates the context for the conversation.  “Why is this important? What is important about it? What does it make possible?”
  2. Transparent community engagement leaves little room for organizational ego – it is not about seeking acknowledgment for how smart we are.  Instead, it is about eliciting and trusting the wisdom of others, and trusting that wisdom will improve our chances of achieving our shared goals.
  3. Transparent community engagement lets us see how many people want our cause to succeed. It shows who is paying attention – often way more people than we realize.  (That became so clear to us in our Facebook discussion!)
  4. Transparent community engagement leads to more transparent engagement. When we’ve done it once and experienced its power, we want to do it again. We become more aware of opportunities to open up. We begin to see people who care everywhere we look.
  5. Transparency is 2-way. We tend to think in terms of others’ ability to see in, but it’s also about our seeing out.  When we live closed-up, we never realize the reason we find it so hard to connect is that we only think we are reaching out.  In truth, the only time many organizations “reach out” is when they need something (volunteers, donations).  They are cracking the door open just enough to let in that thing they need, and then closing it back up again before anyone can come in and make themselves at home.
  6. Which leads to my last observation – that being closed-up is about fear.   “What if they steal my idea?  What if they think I’m wrong / dumb / etc.? What if they take my funding?”  Transparent community engagement – trusting others – is the path of quiet bravery.

That’s my top-of-the-head list. What thoughts occur to you about transparent community engagement? What has your experience been?  Please share!

Learn how your organization can deeply engage your own community, with the Community Engagement Action Kit.

Photo: One of Earl’s sunflowers’ progeny

7 thoughts on “Transparency & Community Engagement: Part 3”

  1. Hildy,

    This post is so refreshing, almost cleansing. I tend to express my frustration of non-profits in terms of what we’re not doing, or what we’re doing in a narrow-minded, self-serving way, but your posts constantly remind me that it’s more about everything that is possible and how to see through that giant lens of shared vision.

    For some reason, I forget that people want to help, want to be engaged. It’s just a matter of being open to whatever conversation the community wants to have and letting go of my need to steer that conversation.

    Thank you!


  2. Thank you for the series, Hildy. I like posts that make me think further…

    I agree with the first part of Sara’s comment. Actually, I do agree with second as well. The problem I see is that the ability of “being open” and of “letting go” is often missing in the relationship between organisations and their communities. Sometimes is an unconscious attitude, and sometimes is a conscious approach.

    Point 2 becomes too often a barrier when it comes to the serious conversations.


  3. Hildy, I so wish we had known each other 3 years ago when I was in Uganda and fully engaged in creating the kind of community openness that you describe. In the context of the community (which has since closed, taking my experiment with it) I had over 40 Ugandans online crowdsourcing input on program development from a very engaged group of global supporters.

    The kind of magic that can happen when you open your work up for input from people who want to do more than just give money or click to vote is truly uplifting like nothing else. The internet gives us the possibility to organize our Better World Building work in new ways – it’s encouraging to me that more and more people like yourself are starting to get it. But it’s not always easy to figure out how to do it. In some ways I see us increasingly fragmented today – spread out across platforms and siloed into an increasing number of organizational structures.

    And the truth is, it can be really scary. In a society that yearns for success stories, gardening in the front yard is not ALWAYS pleasant for all parties concerned. The manure sometimes smells bad, occasionally the plants die. Working with communities means that we will experience many failures alongside the successes. Sometimes the challenges that we face are so very complex, the unexpected thwart looms out of nowhere, and people don’t always see eye to eye. Handling detractors and difficult people in public requires a soft kind of strength, while encouraging supporters to offer input requires a special kind of confident weakness. These are the nuanced character traits that tomorrow’s transparency will require of community leaders. But I am 100% convinced, based on my own experience, that it’s worth it.

    Thank you again, Hildy, for getting it, for preaching it, for living it. I love love love your particular brand of transparency and hope – for our sector – that those who read you will dare to embrace it.

  4. Great post series! When I read the post about gardening in the front yard, it really resonated with me. I believe you are absolutely right, and that all kinds of organizations can benefit from this approach. Along with exposure comes opportunity for us to connect with others in ways we otherwise would not have.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. The general principal of transparency is an intriguing one since it speaks to both internal and external issues. The first has primarily to do with “corporate culture” – the value of empowering the insights of the largest possible group of those inside an organization – both to empower them and to benefit from them. Your postings address these issues cogently and convincingly. [of course, I agreed before hand.]

    The more complex issue has to do with how to treat the wide variety of stakeholders, many of whom have views at odds with one another. The principle, of course, is the same – engage them with one another. This certainly enhances credibility when hard decision have to be made. However, in reality, there is a tension between being able to engage external stakeholders on a regular basis and the effective running of an organization. How often, about what decisions, what weight does one give each group, etc. are the devil in the details part of this.
    Finally, a comment about the particular sub-sector of the non profit world which is where I reside: with funders. I completely endorse an increased transparency regarding process and expectation. And a “best practice” funder spends a lot of time engaging their chosen fields and their grantees to have a continuing improvement in how the funder does business. But I do believe that the actual decision making need not be transparent. Anyone who has sat in a grantmaking session knows how delicate those discussions can be and it is within the legitimate discretion of a funder to make those hard decisions. It is not acceptable for a funder to change the rules in the middle or to have secret rules, but assuming that the guidelines and rules are applied equally and equitably, transparency ends at that door.

  6. Thank you all so much for the thoughtfulness of your comments! I always regret the lag time between my writing and replying, as I write when I have time, and then usually dive into something that takes my complete focus for days on end. (A bit of my own transparency there 🙂 )

    Thank you – and I hope you will connect here often!

    Sara and Alma:
    Your points about opening up and letting go of control are so applicable, with so many underlying issues at play with both those concepts – culture, temperament, pride, perceptions, fear (control is always about fear), etc. Our organizations simply reflect our own individual nature!

    Christina and Richard:
    Your comments both raise for me an issue I think is critical – the potential of the work we all do. Yes, it is more expedient to not engage. Yes, it sometimes “smells bad.” Yes, there are always seeming good reasons NOT to engage (e.g. funder processes). But when we are considering those issues, and the million and one other reasons NOT to be transparent, we are focusing on the benefit to our organizations, rather than the community.

    And so the issue for me is always the bigger question: If we are to create healthy, humane, resilient, vibrant communities, which approach is most likely to walk that talk and lead us there? That is, of course, the essence of using the Pollyanna Principles to guide our work – the essence of the mission of the Community-Driven Institute. And so the question changes from “What is the best way for us as an organization to operate?”

    The question becomes, “Which way of being will aim us at creating the community we want for our children and our grandchildren? Which approach will create healthy, compassionate, resilient places to live? Which approach shows our core values in action, modeling those behaviors to those we want to emulate them?”

    You are right, Christine, in sensing that we either see ourselves as part of the community or not. If we are walking our talk, we can’t really have it both ways. And of course you are both correct that that is not always easy. Sometimes it DOES mean folks will disagree. Truth is, though, they disagreed anyway – now it’s on the table where that disagreement can be addressed, discussed, acted upon – or simply acknowledged.

    That’s what it is to live authentically in community. So if we are engaging transparently, one more benefit is that the means is also the ends!

    Looking forward to your additional comments and thoughts, gang – thanks!

  7. Hildy,
    I love your three posts and the replies. They couldn’t come at a better time as I am preparing for an important session with a local leadership group this afternoon and needed this uplift!!!! To share just a couple of quick related things from my own experience. Years ago I planted sunflowers in my front yard in Jacksonville Beach, FL. Almost the minute they bloomed, a swarm of bugs descended on them and in one day totally destroyed the plants. I was devastated. After talking with neighbors and researching, it became clear that apprently I could not grow these really huge sunflowers and protect them from these bugs without using chemicals, which I didn’t want to do. So I went to plan B: I found a smaller sunflower I could grow that the bugs ignored. These bloomed in all their glorious beauty and added so much to the neighborhood. Sometimes we can’t grow the BIG flowers but we can do the next best thing, and that’s OK too. More recently, I have been waiting for months for a really yucky (and growing) wart to fall off my dog’s tongue. I consulted a third vet, as the first two said just to wait a few months for it to fall off on its own, and if it didn’t, she would need to have surgery to remove it and biopsy it. The third vet said to try an immune strenthening natural supplement, as she has had great success with that. In less than a week, the wart was gone and boy were my dog and I happy campers. We had dodged a big bullet. The wisdom may not always be right in the room, but it is DEFINITELY in the community somewhere, we just have to keep asking and involving. Love, Gail


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