Participation Works – Really!
A lifetime of service. That was the story that guided my life through all of the 20th century. Working as a pastor and teacher, civil rights activist, peace protester, community-builder, non-profit executive. Now in my early sixties, in good health, employability in question but not ready for retirement, Linda and I assessed our combined experience and acquired skills. We decided to put together a home-based business that could be a source of self-support and provide needed services to organizations committed to the same causes that had caught our passion for making a difference in the world.
Our years of work with the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) provided us with training and field experience in methods for social change and community development. Thirteen years running a nonprofit anti-hunger organization gave us lots of hands-on and close-up experience with organizational growth and development. After spending a couple of years exploring possibilities, we decided to go full time. We adopted the name Participation Works for our new venture, and decided to operate as a sole proprietorship, with Linda as owner and me as her one employee. This seemed only fair, since I got to be chief executive of FOOD FOR ALL for more than a decade, with Linda reporting to me. Besides, she was more skilled as a facilitator and trainer than I was.
We wrote a business plan and created a simple logo for our business cards, stationary and marketing materials.
Relying on referrals from friends and acquaintances who knew our work, we began to get a few jobs. We also continued our connection to the ICA and their network of training courses known as Technology of Participation (ToP). We conducted two-day courses in group facilitation methods and strategic planning, offered a couple of times a year in the Southern California region. This helped us develop a network of contacts, since most of the course participants were executives and volunteers with nonprofit service organizations.
With some skill and a bit of luck, calls for our services began to grow. This was assisted somewhat by the shift in leadership philosophy that was beginning to take hold in many nonprofit organizations, from a “top-down” to a more collaborative and participative style. Hence, our name Participation Works was not only good branding but an accurate description of an effective approach. Organizations that really put to work the methods we were teaching them found that they were getting their work done with a lot less time wasted and energy spent trying to arrive at decisions.
Our approach was simple. Neither Linda nor I were ever interested in or good at marketing ourselves. When we began our business the Internet and social marketing were just being born. We had to depend on word-of-mouth networking and referrals from anyone who knew us and our work. We were fortunate that there were not many skilled facilitators in the Inland Empire, our targeted geography. There were consultants of all kinds, but the field of facilitation was still relatively in its infancy.
I will attempt to describe the difference between a consultant and a facilitator:
· A consultant usually has some expertise in a particular area, such as finance, fundraising, organizational development, and gathers information from people within and outside an organization, then writes up recommendations or a complete plan for the group to execute;
· A facilitator brings only skills in group process and uses them to bring together all elements within the organization, helping them to achieve a consensus by drawing on the knowledge and experience within the organization itself.
This means that the usual result of a planning process that is facilitated is a plan where there is buy-in from all levels of an organization and where group members express “We created the plan ourselves.” Plans written up by consultants often are much more expensive and reside on a bookshelf in an office, gathering dust.
The Participation Works approach was, after receiving a call expressing interest in our services, Linda would pre-qualify a potential client on the phone by asking questions aimed at learning about the organization and what experience they had already had with strategic planning. The next step was a two-hour meeting with a representative group from the organization, in order to clarify for them how we work and design a one-and-a-half to two-day planning retreat. Often potential clients were skeptical that they could produce a real three to five-year plan that could actually be implemented. We assured them it was possible. In our first few years we were giving these assurances with less confidence than after getting feedback from clients who found that these methods worked in their organizations. Several called us back for second and third strategic planning retreats as they found that board and staff changes, as well as changes in their environments, required responsiveness and new directions on their part. A number of clients began to ask us for help in implementing their plans, so we developed quarterly and annual reviews that allowed them to keep their plans ever-fresh and current. A few nonprofits began sending their staff and board members to our group facilitation methods courses and adopting our planning methods throughout their organizations.
For the first couple of years of the first decade of the 21st century we combined five nonprofit clients with six ICA training courses. Most of these were two-day gigs with organizations varying in size from small all-volunteer groups to well-established nonprofits with staff and enough in their budgets to pay us our modest fee. Participation Works gained its reputation for doing good work for a reasonable price. Sometimes we were so reasonable that we were lucky to cover our gas and materials expenses, but always for a good cause: Some struggling nonprofit group needing to determine a new direction or re-energize itself to better serve its clientele.
Fortunately, for our own self-support needs, I turned 65 in 2002 and began collecting Social Security income and automatically received Medicare. One good selling point became that our clients got two for the price of one. We had found our niche and continued to work within it through the rest of the decade, averaging ten to fifteen new and repeat clients per year, along with conducting the three to four Technology of Participation (ToP) training courses each year. Clients ranged from small to large, startups to long-established, many different fields of service, domestic abuse prevention, animal shelters, hospitals, foundations, radio stations, a few small cities, and some county government agencies.
I made several feeble attempts at retiring during the decade, even declaring when I reached my 70th birthday that I was leaving Participation Works and Linda should find another facilitator to work with. But there always seemed to be another client that desperately needed help, and somehow Linda would convince me I was indispensable. I must admit I was always motivated by feeling needed, and the ‘life of service’ mantra I had always tried to live by kept playing in the back of my mind. I think I fully retired when I was somewhere in my early seventies. I’m not sure because since Linda retired a couple of years ago, she keeps selectively volunteering with groups that fit with the causes we believe in, and I keep agreeing to help.
And so it goes.