Safe Harbors and Captains — The Role of a Board of Advisors

BEST is the first organization that I have worked with that has not only a Board of Directors and a handful of committees, but also has a large and impressive Board of Advisors. Now the duties of a nonprofit board of directors is quite straight-forward and basically in the same vein even across different “types” of nonprofit boards, such as governance versus working boards. However, advisory boards are few and far between, and from my limited experience, no two are all that much alike. The best definition I could find, which came from the private sector, was that board of advisors are “safe harbors” for leaders to explore ideas before going to the board of directors. Basically, I had no idea what to expect with my advisor interviews, or even if my questions would work for them, but I set out on my little ship to see what type of harbor these Advisors were providing to BEST and the Executive Director.

About 50% of my interviews thus far have been with Advisors, which has been very illuminating. Some of these individuals have a clear understanding of BEST’s mission, as well as their role as a brain trust and “big name” to support that mission. While others are generally supportive of what they think BEST is trying to accomplish, but basically said yes to becoming an Advisor because they were asked by a respected friend and it didn’t require attending regular meetings. Creating a group of minimally commitment individuals presents an interesting dynamic for an organization.

Doing a basic SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis on this Board of Advisors provides some insight into this model. First, without a doubt the long list of Advisors on BEST’s letterhead is a huge strength for an advocacy organization trying to change policy in the area. A City Council member or Mayor takes one look at this list and knows this is an organization with perceived validity among the movers-and-shakers. To stretch my maritime metaphor, these advisors are quite literally the “captains” of urban political discourse and civic engagement in our community. At the same time, that list goes on everything put out by the organization and it is unclear if every individual supports every action the organization takes, especially as it matures into a broader mission than a single transit campaign. If said City Council member was to call up one of these individuals about a specific statement, would they be informed enough to be able to speak to the position in any depth or with any energy? I’m not sure all those that I interviewed would be able to or, worse, share BEST’s values at such a level that any action by the organization would automatically be supported by them.

The opportunities and threats are equally interesting. There is an undeniable opportunity to increase engagement with these Advisors. Most do not participate on any committees, few attend any Board meetings as observers, and it is hit-or-miss on whether they feel compelled to donate financially to the organization. Plugging them more directly into the organization in these roles could be a huge boon for the organization, so could encouraging a sense of community among the Advisors. Most that I interviewed reported not knowing more than one other person who was an Advisor, the missed opportunities around potential energy synthesis is a real concern. However, the common narrative around these busy, important people being an Advisor is in no small part because it doesn’t require much means that any effort to increase involvement and expectations could back fire. Is it worth shaking the boat?

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Avoiding the Fire Hose: Agenda Design for a Two Hour Meeting

This past week I have started my post-graduate fellowship with Oregon Housing and Community Services, to say the least it is drinking from a fire hose. I have two direct supervisors, both of which are fantastic. However, one understands the need to turn on the hose to trickle to get me up to speed without drowning, and the other… well, I have a couple inches of reading still to do. We’ve known from the beginning that this training needs to be a “taster” of what good public participation can offer a department. There is no way that we can go over everything in two hours, and if we try, we will likely overwhelm those who are interested, and further turn off those who are already skeptical. Now in our final stages of preparing for the training in two weeks, I have more sympathy than ever with our to-be participants and recognize we really do have to turn that hose to trickle.

A key goal of the training has been making it extremely applied for the participants. However, our participants are a group of planners, so open that door too wide and we will have full-fledged charrette on our hands. Not only do we not have time for that, it would once again miss the bigger points (like gaining buy-in for the value of P2) that we are trying to achieve with this training. Thus we have developed a series of discrete activities and discussion questions paired with each value to help participants apply the value, but not necessary have the time or structure to fully plan out it’s application. Instead, we hope that these activities and tools can be used as just that, tools, for them to continue this work outside of this training. Rather than drowning them in the fire hose, we are trying to teach them how to work the sprinkler system.

It’s All About the Values

We’ve looked at the Public Participation Guidelines from many angles, trying to find the key framework to connect people to this work. Ultimately we have landed on the values as being the overarching frame to train people on this material. The six core values of the Guidelines were originally based off of principles identified by both the International Association of Public Participation and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. Listed one through six in the Guidelines, we’ve actually come to the conclusion that the values should not be seen as having a particular order of operation or of value, that they are all equal. To represent this visually we have created a circular model that like a wheel can be spun to start at any given location, but that without all six values would be incomplete.

In addition, we are highlighting the importance of cultural responsiveness by demonstrating how these values are grounded in the principles of inclusive community engagement, which include recognizing that people do not want to be studied, that there is diversity within communities, that relationship building is key, and that public participation practitioners should not operate from preconceived notions. At some point in the future, Lorna wants to do a rewrite of the Guidelines that more clearly lays out both this foundation of cultural responsiveness and how these values drive participation.

Evolution of Inclusion: From Cultural Competency to Cultural Responsiveness

In 2011, when the Public Participation Guidelines were written, the current thinking around diversity and inclusion focused on a concept called “cultural competency”—in fact, the Guidelines are subtitled “A Framework for Culturally Competent Outreach.” In the Guidelines, the student defined cultural competence as “the ability of organizations and staff to interact effectively with people, families, and communities of all cultures. A key component of this ability is not assuming to already know how others would like to be treated.” This definition first acknowledges that “the public” or “the constituents” of an organization, especially a government, are not all one big homogenous group with the same interests, values, and needs. It also sneaks in concepts of cultural humility, encouraging us to recognize that our assumptions are flawed; as well as the concept of the Platinum Rule, which turns the self-first focus of the Golden Rule towards the other by acknowledging that another may wish to be treated differently than you.

Centering their framework around such concepts of equity even less than a decade ago was a big deal as few cities still today have adopted such an approach. However, since then there has also become an increased awareness of the potentially problematic nature of “cultural competency.” The problem derives from the word competency, which can be defined as having the skills and knowledge necessary to do something successfully. In other words, it suggests that if you take enough classes and do enough studying, you will reach a completion point (a passed test, if you will) where you are now culturally competent. We are increasingly understanding today that more important than competency is humility, the recognition that we need to always be curious, that we can never know or “get” what it is like to be someone else, and that our assumptions of the world need to be open to being challenged if we truly wish to become an inclusive society.

As Lorna and I create a training for all City departments, we have come back many times to the issue of having Guidelines framed, or at least, titled with something we now recognize as potentially problematic. However, we can also see that the definition used in the Guidelines was already ahead of its time by including the last line around assumptions. Thus we’ve decided to leave the Guidelines as they are, but to start the training by acknowledging a new “name” for this approach of equity, which is cultural responsiveness. Cultural responsiveness is defined as the ability to learn from and relate respectfully with people from your own culture as well as other cultures. This definition, more so than the final destination competency, demonstrates how inclusion in a never-ending journey of learning. Prominent in K-12 pedagogy currently, cultural responsiveness is also about designing programs and curriculum that is responsive and inclusive to the cultures in the room, which is equally relevant to public outreach in diverse communities.

Designing an Intake Process

One of my first actual product deliverables for my City of Eugene internship is to design an intake form for departments interested in taking this Public Participation Guidelines training, which we are now calling the “Values-in-Action Training.” I’ve made a fair number of forms in my life and I know the key to a good form is that you get good data in, so that you can put a good product out. This includes not only getting the information you need as the receiver, but having the form provide the thinking space necessary for the participant to provide meaningful answers and become better prepared for the activity.

We’ve decided that the training will be as applied as possible, not a top-down theoretical lecture, but almost a charrette that provides participants with structured time to think through and directly apply these public participation concepts to an actual project. Since they will be bringing the project (it is, after all, their project and not our’s), they will be in control of a lot of the content that takes place during the training. Lots of potential gains in this approach, but not knowing what they are coming in with is one downside that we cannot tolerate and still be able to guarantee a quality training. Thus the creation of an intake form.

Designing this form has definitely been a goldilocks pursuit, we know that they could easily write us a 10-page plan describing their project, but we don’t need to know that much. On the other hand, leaving it at just the name and a few goals for the project could lead the participants to bringing in a project that is not germane for the training. So at two pages long, we have designed an intake process that asks for the basics, but also gets them already “doing” some of the training work, such as identifying the project’s level of public participation on the IAP2 spectrum and selecting the Guidelines values that they most struggle to implement. Through sneaky little questions like this, we are priming them to do their best work during the training, long before they ever step in the room.

Riddle me this: finding the right questions

During our last planning meeting, we landed on a key question for this training: If these staff were given a handful of key questions to answer in order to do more impactful public participation, what would those questions be? A question about questions. We knew there were a lot of questions in the Public Participation Guidelines that were intended to guide planning for effective engagement, so we decided that a next task would be to put all of this in one document and start sorting. Turns out, I kid you not, that there 73 questions included in the Guidelines. Probably another reason why they have not been widely adopted and used—who in the world has time to answer 73 questions? (Ah, another question about questions).

We spent nearly an hour talking and sorting through the five pages of single space transcribed questions that came out of the Guidelines. We found that too many of the questions were at the ingredient level, or grocery list or seating arrangement level, but what people really need are deep, complex questions at more of the purpose of the event level, or at minimum the meal level. Eventually, we went back to the values and found some appropriate level questions to guide planning. For example, under the value of sustained engagement we moved away from questions about specific debriefing methods and listserv management, and instead crafted the question: How are we committed to nurturing the relationship, and the learning, that we will build during this P2 process? Yes, people still need to do the grocery shopping of figuring out a time for a debrief, but more importantly they need to explore the deeper motivations of why they are hosting the event in the first place.

Making Sense of Someone Else’s Plan

This past week I have read and re-read the City of Eugene’s Public Participation Guidelines. I hate to say it aloud, but they don’t make as much coherent sense as they should. When I read them over for class back in winter term, I recall thinking they were not as sophisticated as some of the other equity engagement handbooks, such as one from Seattle, but I thought Eugene’s was still a good document.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a totally workable and valid plan. And it is also was clearly written by a bunch of (ahem) graduate students and done in an unnecessarily condensed period of time. No single part is wrong in anyway and many of the sections are well-researched and quite ahead of their time for 2011, but you can see that different students wrote different sections and there was not enough time dedicated to creating a single, coherent framework or voice throughout. This makes me wonder (and worry) about the more than dozen applied community projects, how many of those aren’t surviving the validity tests of some new person charged with implementing our plans? I have to remember that there is as much value in just going through a quality planning process as there often is in the final product, but it sure can be hard to pick-up that plan years later and put it to work if you did not go through that process.

To help to make sense of the plan, I’ve decided to pick one of the many frameworks presented and see if I can make the rest of it fit into that one framework. While I had at least three options depending on how you slice and dice the place (values, principles, and steps), I choose to work with the six values the student team presented. I’ve created a spreadsheet that organizes all of the rest of the plan’s components into these value categories. After presenting the draft of this table to Lorna, she said it made her realize that she had not previously appreciated how confusing and incoherent the guidelines actually are as a framework and that this might provide some explanation as to why it has been hard to get other departments to adopt. We’ve still got a long way to go to continue making sense of all the good stuff in this plan, but I think we are slowly starting to see the framework of a crown in which to put all the jewels and gems of knowledge scattered throughout these guidelines.