Clarify, Communicate, and Engage: Insights about Trustee Engagement in Design Thinking

In January, our Foundation lead a workshop at the Minnesota Council of Foundation’s annual conference. The session was entitled “From Empathy to Strategy: Co-Designing Grantmaking with Community.”  It was our attempt to tell our story of using Design Thinking or Human Centered Design  to work with the community to co-create a new set of Foundation priorities and grantmaking strategies focused on North Minneapolis.  This blog post is our response to some of the audience questions submitted that day which we didn’t have time to discuss.

It was not a session focused on proselytizing anyone to the Design Thinking approach.  Sure, a few minutes of the session described the model at a high level, but the vast majority was used to share lessons learned, successes, failures and residual questions that still need addressing.

For example, some lessons shared included:

  • We are not the problem solvers. We are on a shared search for solutions.
  • Empathy flows from authentic listening.
  • Transparency is key. Don’t use excuses or “philanthro-splain”. Be real.
  • Build processes that share power.
  • The process never ends.
  • Get help! A good coach/consultant will make all the difference.

As we shared our story and our learnings, what revealed itself was a consistent theme that resonates for most family foundations: the engagement of a family board and the role of trustees in day-to-day decision making and strategy development.  As with most family foundations, decision-making is a lively dialogue between staff who live and breathe this work every day and who generally have the close relationships with the grantees, and trustees who want to support good work and who usually rely on staff to find and recommend that work.

In a previous blog post entitled Change Happens at the Speed of Trust, I talked briefly about how our initial set of recommendation was met with concerns by our trustees about whether the proposals were bold enough and would result in the kind of big ideas we were attempting to uncover with our design process.  There was a disconnect between what staff and trustees understood to be our strategy and our process. Neither was wrong. And both were right.

Clearly, this part of our story resonated most with our workshop participants.  When asked to submit questions on note cards, more than 20 questions were specific to the engagement of and the interaction with our board during the design process. Questions such as:

  • At the beginning, why did you not take the board members on the same design journey as staff?
  • When you presented your plan to the board, did you state the specific problem(s) you were solving for?
  • Do you have non-family members on your board? Why or why not?
  • Have you thought about how a change in board thinking or a desire for a different approach in the future might impact the trust and relationships you’ve built through this process? Is that a potential risk?
  • Is a change like this worthwhile if the board isn’t on board?

This tells me that staff (those who generally attend conferences) are hungry for ideas and examples of productive trustee-staff engagement in matters of significant foundation interest. And while we weren’t able to respond directly to all of these questions at the workshop, I thought it might be useful to share three insights, (or hindsights) about engaging foundation board members in this kind of deep community design work.

Clarify, clarify, clarify!
One of the biggest mistakes we made was to not get crystal clear about terms and expectations at the very beginning of the process. Although staff thought we understood what our trustees meant by “bold” and “laser-focused”, we got hung up on the timeline by which we would arrive at bold and laser-focused. In design thinking, you generally prototype ideas quickly, discard those that prove unworkable, and focus efforts on redesigning and prototyping ideas that do work, eventually arriving at one big idea.  This is how we as staff approached the process. Our trustees, however, wanted the big idea more quickly. This had not been clarified, so when we presented a series of funding recommendations that were smaller and more “early stage” they pushed back. They saw these ideas as little change in how we previously did our grantmaking: lots of smaller efforts that didn’t seem to add up to much impact.  Had this been clarified sooner, the Call for Proposals process and the citizen review process would have been handled differently.  We would have been looking for and asking for ideas that could be scaled more quickly.

The insight: even when you think you are crystal clear, clarify again. Step back and take a look at your terms and expectations from a different angle to be sure they are fully understood.

Communicate, communicate, communicate!
In hindsight, we see that the updates and communication with our trustees about progress in the design process were in fact inadequate.  We held lengthy conference calls three times with our trustees from March through September (when we released our Call for Proposals). During these calls we used PowerPoint presentations, handouts, and design examples to update and inform our trustees about the work to date. Two of our trustees attended a couple of the design sessions in North Minneapolis. I also sent a few email updates to them when significant activities seemed to warrant their attention.  Each time this information sharing was met with nods, a few questions, some recommendations and tacit approval to move forward.  It never occurred to me that we may not have been in uniform agreement about the process.

In hindsight, I now see that I was too close to the process to appreciate the potential concerns of our trustees who had only and arms-length connection to it.  I needed to find more “face time” with our trustees and walk through what had been learned to date, and how that learning would translate into action. This could have been done by presenting scenarios built on a potential idea and discussing how it might play out in grantmaking; videotaping parts of the design sessions and playing them back to our trustees to see first-hand how engagement with the community was occurring; inviting community members to the trustee meetings to share their perspective; and so forth.  I needed to be more creative in how to bring what was occurring outside the Foundation walls into meetings inside the Foundation.

The insight: you cannot over-communicate in this process, and the communication techniques used may need to be different and unusual.

Engage, engage, engage!
As stated earlier, the familiar dynamic in family foundations is for staff to be more regularly engaged with community efforts and for trustees to trust staff as key informants and experts on what to support in the community.  Whether that is fair or not, it’s real. In our process, we unintentionally expected our trustees to be on the same page as we were as staff simply because we communicated as mentioned above.  Simply put, that’s not good enough anymore.  Even if it had slowed our process down, we needed to find more opportunities to include and engage our trustees in the actual design process.  This doesn’t mean that they needed to be in on every single meeting, presentation, session and feedback loop, but we needed to identify the most critical opportunities and invite and insist they participate. The alternative would have been to bring some of these experiences to them as outlined in the “communicate” section above. If you don’t do it along the way, you’ll play catch up at the end, just like we did when a series of misunderstandings nearly derailed our design thinking process.

The insight: Finding appropriate activities and moments to engage the trustees in real community engagement and design activities is critical for building support and understanding along the way. Do not short change that part of the process.

Finally, I would say it is important to remember that our trustees are not only the final decision makers in our governance process, they are also our partners in efforts to forge real community impact.  They cannot be treated like the final stop in a challenging and enlightening journey.  It is vital that they be provided onramps to the journey along with Facebook updates and postcards at each stop. As we learned, it’s better to clarify and then clarify again, over-communicate, and find opportunities to actually engage in the process, not just get reports from the road.

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