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ASK THE EXPERT: NONPROFIT ENGAGEMENT

Miles Sandler|Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

To help individuals attain economic independence by advancing educational achievement and entrepreneurial success, consistent with the aspirations of our founder, Ewing Marion Kauffman.

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[Transcript]

00:00:00:13 – 00:00:24:07
Ruth
Welcome to KC Care’s Kansas City nonprofit voice. We’re telling the stories of Kansas City nonprofits and the people behind them. KC Cares is the intersection of the nonprofit and profit communities making Kansas City a better place to live, work and play? This KC Care segment is brought to you by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. W w w dot Kaufman dot org.

00:00:25:04 – 00:00:55:16
Ruth
Nonprofits are busy organizations, whether staffed with one volunteer leader or dozens of paid team members. It’s often challenging to find time to listen, learn and grow because time is so precious to get the work done. The practice of engagement. It’s the short end of the stick. As part of our Ask the Expert series, Myles Sandler, director of policy and engagement at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, joins us today to shed some light on engagement and its importance.

00:00:55:24 – 00:00:58:25
Ruth
Welcome, Myles. It’s so great to have you with us.

00:00:59:08 – 00:01:00:04
Miles Sandler
Great to be here.

00:01:01:05 – 00:01:07:04
Ruth
Well, maybe the best place to start with this whole thing is let’s define what engagement is.

00:01:08:00 – 00:01:43:14
Miles Sandler
Yes, absolutely. You know, I think that oftentimes when folks think about engagement, they really just think about, you know, how do I kind of connect or build relationship with a particular group? And that’s absolutely true. I think that’s the big base of engagement. But I think when we’re talking about, you know, in our nonprofit world, kind of the deeper level of engagement, it’s really about how do you build that empathy for the folks ultimately that you either serve or that you’re in collaboration with.

00:01:44:03 – 00:02:05:24
Miles Sandler
And then how do you actually learn and listen and incorporate that back into, you know, the work that you do. And so ultimately, I think engagement is truly a two way street conversation. And then from that conversation, you’re able to build in a new pathway that improves your work what’s.

00:02:05:24 – 00:02:15:04
Ruth
Your experience, your or maybe anecdotal knowledge of nonprofits in their attention to engagement.

00:02:16:16 – 00:03:00:07
Miles Sandler
Yeah, I mean, I my whole career has been a nonprofit, this, you know, role. And where I’m at now is the first time I’ve been at a private foundation. I have the blessing of being at the foundation now for five years. But previous to that, I’ve always worked in nonprofits and began my career in community based organizations very much, you know, smaller, financially scrappy organizations And so, you know, my experience through that perspective was, you know, ultimately we were extremely passionate about, you know, the audience that we were servicing, the folks that we wanted to support.

00:03:00:08 – 00:03:37:09
Miles Sandler
I’ve been in predominantly youth development organizations and that was always really important, but oftentimes was a challenge to, you know, have the capacity, the resources the time just to really be able to learn. And so from my perspective, just being in those experiences, it’s been about how do you make sure that engagement doesn’t get lost, but that it’s actually weaved into your every day in small ways and then building in that necessary time to actually use that learning for adjustment and for improvement.

00:03:39:09 – 00:04:03:20
Ruth
I want to dove down into engagement and what that means. I when I’ve encountered it working in nonprofits, it seems like it sits a lot of the time over in development in the fundraising aspect. But I wanted to touch back for a moment on why does the Kauffman Foundation feel this is important and have someone like you there to help guide organizations.

00:04:04:11 – 00:04:56:03
Miles Sandler
Yeah, absolutely. So for the Kauffman Foundation, this is really essential. You know, our mission is to ensure that folks have the ability to have all the opportunities they deserve. And that they can have economic mobility, stability and eventually potentially prosperity, whether that’s through the workforce or whether that’s through being an entrepreneur. And if we don’t have an intimate understanding of what does an entrepreneur go through, particularly ones that have been marginalized or not able to have the same access to resources and funding as others, and if we don’t intimately understand someone that is really striving to build a career or for a young person that is, you know, looking at their future and trying to

00:04:56:03 – 00:05:32:20
Miles Sandler
understand what their career pathway is and we don’t have an entire understanding of those constituents. There’s really not a great way that we can build into our grantmaking. What’s going to be an effective solution? Because we’re going to miss things. We’re going to miss the nuances of the challenges that those individuals face. And then we’re not going to fund accordingly to really ensure that we’re finding organizations that are going to address those needs, that we’re building out strategy We’re building out, you know, a policy agenda that’s going to address those needs.

00:05:32:29 – 00:05:49:11
Miles Sandler
So the engagement piece is really the almost essential to us actually making an impact. Otherwise, you know, we’re just going to be a one sided conversation and providing resources, but without the knowledge to really make sure that they are going to hit the mark.

00:05:51:09 – 00:06:04:12
Ruth
Big a problem is this for nonprofits that you’re dealing with, you’ve worked in them, you’re dealing with them, is this a big issue? And if so, how do we correct the not, so to speak?

00:06:05:00 – 00:06:42:09
Miles Sandler
Yeah, I think it ranges so I think that, you know, there’s obviously some nonprofits that are really good at this, you know, and they and they may be excellent at engagement, but more challenged with some of the technical aspects, like really getting into their systems and data and what have you. But we also note the opposite in actually some of the larger nonprofits, some of the ones that may have really good sophistication in some of their process CS and in even their, you know, kind of financial savvy.

00:06:42:18 – 00:07:09:27
Miles Sandler
But then they lack the authenticity to have real relationships and sometimes therefore, again, their work is not as impactful as it needs to be. So I think that there’s a a range for nonprofits, but I honestly think that it’s an opportune nity for nonprofits to learn from each other and to recognize sometimes that there may be certain groups that are really great at engaging and connecting with their constituents.

00:07:10:05 – 00:07:31:22
Miles Sandler
How are they informing the general field and then how are they also being resourced? And this is a bit of a call out to foundations or other philanthropic partners, right? We have to support engagement is essential that that is a part of the grantmaking and it’s a part of the way that we support nonprofits.

00:07:34:06 – 00:07:42:16
Ruth
A thought that pops into my mind when you talk about engagement is is engagement networking or is networking part of engagement?

00:07:43:24 – 00:08:11:24
Miles Sandler
Yeah. So I think there is a lots of different tactics, right? Networking may be a tactic, but the challenge with networking, it’s is again, often kind of one sided. So you’re going out and yes, you’re meeting people and you’re you know, oftentimes from a development standpoint, nonprofits need to get out there and get their name out there and make connections so they can potentially have, you know, more funding to support their mission.

00:08:12:00 – 00:08:54:06
Miles Sandler
And all that’s essential. But it doesn’t have much to do oftentimes with learning. Right. And to me, when I define engagement and why it’s so important, it is truly about how are you learning from the folks that you, again, ultimately are either impacting or that you’re collaborate with to get something done. And if that learning is not a part of the process intentionally, and then you’re bringing them back in and using it in the way that you’re doing your strategic planning, in the way that you are actually building out your programing and the way that you’re launching maybe your new initiative, then it’s truly not a back and forth conversation.

00:08:54:18 – 00:09:19:08
Miles Sandler
The last piece to is oftentimes again, networking will be maybe a short term but it doesn’t have that feedback loop, right? So if you’re gaining a lot of information, let’s say do a survey to focus groups, whatever the mechanism you’re using, who the constituency group that you’re interested in, what’s that feedback loop? How are you getting information back out to those groups?

00:09:19:18 – 00:09:36:29
Miles Sandler
And if you’re not able to do that, how are you being transparent about that from the get go that this is not something we have the mechanism for? And so when you’re asking people for their information or you’re trying to learn from that group, that you’re transparent about the expectations for yourself and for that group.

00:09:39:09 – 00:09:49:23
Ruth
A few moments ago, you also mentioned there’s really two tracks of engagement. Let’s go let’s go there. Tell us about those tracks and why each is important.

00:09:51:10 – 00:10:22:17
Miles Sandler
Yeah, I mean, I again, I think that kind of the two tracks that I see is there’s one around, you know, relationship building. And, you know, sometimes that sits in that networking space and, you know, really connecting for development sake for getting your name out there. But then again, that other track is really to me about learning. And, you know, there can be very formalized learning processes in like surveys, focus groups, kind of learning interviews.

00:10:23:22 – 00:10:52:01
Miles Sandler
Those can take place and there can be a, you know, very specific hard way to gather that information, make sure that you’re weaving it into your next steps in your planning process. But there’s also less formalized ways of engagement, you know, by doing an event celebration and neighborhood gathering. And you can still lead and learning into that so you can have a simple exit survey.

00:10:52:15 – 00:11:08:11
Miles Sandler
You can have interactive boards where people can actually record their experience or thoughts, live polling A lot of these are actually very inexpensive, easy to do. And they’re, again, great ways to capture learning in a may be less formalized process.

00:11:10:27 – 00:11:22:14
Ruth
How do you go about having your team learn how to do engagement? I mean, I think we sometimes make an assumption that people know. Yes.

00:11:23:01 – 00:11:47:04
Miles Sandler
I do think we make an assumption often that people know. And if it’s not your orientation, you probably don’t. And so some of the ways that I got my team is first and foremost, don’t engage just for engagement sake. Have a North Star, have a purpose. So, you know, you need to have a learning question that is very clear.

00:11:47:04 – 00:12:13:02
Miles Sandler
And aligned with your goals. You need to ensure that you have a goal that you’re actually trying to learn so that you can improve your processes or improve your planning or your strategy. And this may weave into a design process. It may even to you know, you want to build some initiative or coalition. But whatever the thing is, make sure that you’re clear on what you’re trying to achieve.

00:12:13:15 – 00:12:40:27
Miles Sandler
And then the other thing that I really emphasize with my team is be transparent. You need to make sure that you’re clear on what your goals are and that you communicate that well to the folks that you’re engaging, particularly if it’s a more formalized kind of engagement process, like a survey or focus groups or what have you or you’re convening people kind of to gain information from them.

00:12:41:06 – 00:13:17:01
Miles Sandler
You want to make sure that you’re really being upfront of like, are you able to get that information back out to them? Will there be a summary of kind of results? What’s the timeline for that? What are you going to be used this information for? What is it intending to inform? And so as much as you can have transparency and even if that transparency is, you know, we won’t have the capacity get back to you letting people know that upfront so that when they’re coming into that process, they’re making a choice and they’re comfortable with that choice.

00:13:18:03 – 00:13:28:22
Miles Sandler
Too many times we provide expectations to folks that, you know, is not actually going to line up with what really happens.

00:13:30:20 – 00:13:40:25
Ruth
I think there’s nothing worse than somebody asking you for your opinion because they’re wanting it for some reason and then you never know Mm hmm.

00:13:41:19 – 00:14:16:27
Miles Sandler
Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, and if, you know, the best practice is compensation. So if you’re going to ask someone to provide you that kind of formalized information through engagement, you know that they’re compensated for their time and effort. We know that that’s not always possible for all nonprofits. But even something sometimes as simple as making sure that there’s food provided, making sure that there is some type of acknowledgment that they’ve taken out time from their schedules, from their day, from their lives to support your work.

00:14:16:27 – 00:14:30:12
Miles Sandler
And sometimes it’s even just, you know, folks are willing to do it because they believe in your mission, too. But you have to make sure that that’s been articulated, that this is what this is for so that folks can make clear choices of how they want to engage.

00:14:32:03 – 00:15:01:12
Ruth
Is there a fear factor? And maybe I should explain that a little more I’m in an organization and I know what we need to do. Our team is on board and we’re going down this path but we’re going to do a survey so that we can hear from our clients and stakeholders and we get feedback that says, oh, no, don’t open a third location of your food pantry.

00:15:01:15 – 00:15:15:17
Ruth
I have a mobile vehicle. I’ve made that whole scenario up. But first I mean, I could see staff kind of going, We’re already down this path now. Now what?

00:15:16:07 – 00:15:50:25
Miles Sandler
Absolutely know there’s absolutely a fear factor. I’ve experienced it in organizations I’ve worked at where, you know, sometimes there’s decisions that have been made, sometimes not even because of the staff, but because that’s what a donor has decided that they will pay for or that’s what leadership or a board member has been advocating for. And all of a sudden, you do engagement work and you realize that that’s actually not what the community wants or whoever that you serve wants.

00:15:51:13 – 00:16:19:22
Miles Sandler
It’s actually not going to address the core issue. So that’s a very scary factor. You know, there’s there’s two things I think that nonprofits can do. First and foremost, again, we’ve engage judgment early. Right. So you should be having on a regular basis some kind of mechanism to hear from your constituency groups. Right. So that you don’t get that far down the line.

00:16:20:02 – 00:16:43:21
Miles Sandler
You know that you understand what people need. And qualitative data is super, super important. Sometimes one of the biases I think that nonprofits can have is we can have a lot of data. Right. Qualitative data is not there. So we have a lot of quantitative data. We have even sometimes surveys or we have, you know, what the numbers say.

00:16:43:21 – 00:17:07:27
Miles Sandler
Here’s what the stats say. But without that qualitative data, you’re often missing nuances. So I’ll give a quick example. I used to work for an organization in D.C. called D.C. Promised Neighborhood Initiative, and we were really trying to figure out how do we ensure that more families have access to healthy food in the neighborhood that we were focused on?

00:17:07:27 – 00:17:33:24
Miles Sandler
Because we know that when young people have better access to food, they do better academically. We’d already bear that out. We also knew the level of kind of food insecurity in our community, so on and so forth. So we started going down a path with a lot of different options. And then, thank goodness, we pause and said, OK, let’s actually like talk to our constituents.

00:17:34:08 – 00:17:56:02
Miles Sandler
And so we did a bunch of interviews. We had some focus groups. And what we really found out from that, excuse me, was that not only we already knew that we were in a bit of a food desert, but what the access points that actually made sense for families is originally where we were thinking about kind of putting a farmers market, what have you in it.

00:17:56:02 – 00:18:21:24
Miles Sandler
It just really not making sense for the community. But once we listened, we realized we can actually do this whole monthly food drive right in the school, and we can link it to some of the parent conference things that the teachers wanted to do. So we ended up getting just this really great synergy, a great pour out from the community, and it just was much better alignment.

00:18:22:18 – 00:18:29:23
Miles Sandler
So that constant just continuous learning through qualitative is really important.

00:18:31:14 – 00:19:00:00
Ruth
We’re talking with Miles Sandler. She’s director of policy and engagement at the Kauffman Foundation. We’re talking about engagement. So you’ve mentioned a number of tools. Are these things that folks can come to the Kauffman Foundation for Resource Help? How can you guide us? And I am thinking of you know, those nonprofits that are under a $500,000 budget. I can see leaders going, Yeah, I want to do this.

00:19:00:00 – 00:19:02:24
Ruth
But money.

00:19:03:18 – 00:19:30:07
Miles Sandler
Yeah. I mean, that is not something that we have at the foundation as a great resource. I know we have a very active conversation internally about how do we build and support more capacity for nonprofits. But I do think that there are great organizations across our community and nonprofit Connect and others that really are sources to think about how to support all aspects of your nonprofit.

00:19:30:26 – 00:20:08:13
Miles Sandler
I also think that there are some really interesting learnings that can be taken from honestly organizing. So there’s a tons of research that’s been done around kind of good organizing skills. And in all the, you know, a nonprofit may not be doing traditional organizing, right. Which is we often think about for more political reasons or what have you, but the skill set is very much a part of how you think about how do you gain trust, how do you build relationships, how do you connect people around common goals?

00:20:09:02 – 00:20:27:21
Miles Sandler
How do you understand the the challenges that a group is dealing with and then elevate those as a part of your agenda? So I think that’s a really good learning tool. And there’s tons of, you know, kind of resources around that. And then the second one, too, that I have learned a ton from is really learning the design process.

00:20:28:05 – 00:20:57:29
Miles Sandler
So, you know, getting a training on how do you do really good design work. You know, this comes out of oftentimes industry and people creating products, but it really starts with an empathy lens. Right. How do you really understand your customer? How do you understand how they think their motivations and their way of kind of reacting to the world?

00:20:58:07 – 00:21:19:22
Miles Sandler
And then from there, how do you then step through that design process to actually create a project, product or service, what have you? And so I think those processes are very helpful. And there’s just so many options right now for that type of training that it’s it’s very much, I think, available. And there’s a lot of free resources to online.

00:21:21:09 – 00:21:56:21
Ruth
I think it’s interesting you keep talking about clients are constituents and the need to to listen to them, to not make assumptions is that you, the organization, know the right way to meet them, but to get feedback from them kind of in a continuous loop Yes. That what your work is doing is meeting their need. Yeah. How will how important is engagement with in the organization itself and listening?

00:21:57:09 – 00:22:00:27
Ruth
You know, when you’ve that group, you know, things grow and grow and grow and grow.

00:22:02:12 – 00:22:43:06
Miles Sandler
Yeah, that’s a great question. So that’s actually something we do quite a bit at the foundation. And I’m very thankful for that level of culture here where we have a annual a associate survey. And so that is one piece. But then what we do with that survey is we really kind of break it out by department and each department really looks at that data and then identifies two or three goals from that data that they want to support or develop within their department to improve support one another better, what have you.

00:22:43:20 – 00:23:10:23
Miles Sandler
And that survey really has to do with a few different indicators. So we look at trust, we look at, you know, in how associates are trusting each other kind of work environment in general. We also look at, you know, racial equity and how what are people’s perceptions of our inclusion and diversity and racial equity work and how are they how is that resonating with them as individuals?

00:23:11:12 – 00:23:57:27
Miles Sandler
So that is a been a central tool. Honestly, it’s, you know, coming to the foundation was one of the first times that I experienced the level of robust kind of interpersonal associate work that we have here. And that learning is continuous, you know, and it really helps to improve and make us better. What I would say for smaller organizations that may not, again, time, capacity, resources may be thinner, you know, that you really carve in some of that process time with your team when you’re kind of in those moments where you know you’re going to have to come together.

00:23:58:07 – 00:24:24:20
Miles Sandler
So there’s always kind of budget planning time that happened in the year that you have to carve out time for. You just know it because it’s essential to the operating of your organization. Well, there’s nothing wrong with also building into that time that you have some intentional reflection opportunities for your teammates to really, you know, look at what can we do internally to improve and support one another.

00:24:24:29 – 00:24:37:14
Miles Sandler
And again, that transparency piece is super important to that. So don’t forget that. And having establishing, what are your goals even among your internal team that Northstar is essential to that process as well.

00:24:39:23 – 00:25:04:23
Ruth
I got to bring in the big P word, although it’s shifted the pandemic, I just wonder quickly, as we’re nearing the end of our time together, have you seen the engagement or the the looking at engagement? Has that shifted at all because of the craziness of the pandemic? Are we better at it or do we need to come back and focus on it?

00:25:06:04 – 00:25:28:15
Miles Sandler
That’s a great question, and I think it’s a challenging one. Because I think we don’t know exactly yet on one end, you know, I think that we saw some really creative aspects of humanity during the pandemic right. Folks recognizing that, yeah, we have to use these virtual mechanisms, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be flat. Right.

00:25:28:18 – 00:25:52:25
Miles Sandler
That the same concept of how do you make something engaging, interactive, how do you make sure that people can really communicate in lots of different ways You know, one thing I’ll just elevate is that I think for a lot of introverts who sometimes get silenced in meetings, having a chat option was revolutionary. You know, to be able to communicate in a different way.

00:25:53:07 – 00:26:15:10
Miles Sandler
And we need to keep that even in in-person meetings and having mechanisms that are very clear for different learners and for different types of communicators. So on one end, I think that we, you know, learned some things and we were able to you know, make sure that we kept connecting. On the flip side, and I think that this is even more evident in our children.

00:26:15:19 – 00:26:42:06
Miles Sandler
Honestly, I think if you talk to most teachers this year of coming back into the classroom was challenging, not for all the obvious reasons, but also for the reasons that for a lot of those children, they haven’t learned how to socialize in the same way for two years. And it is a skill set. And I think for adults, it’s similar to with we have a little bit of a quicker turnaround, but socialization is a skill set.

00:26:42:07 – 00:26:51:18
Miles Sandler
We have to remind each other how to be kind to one another. And how to give each other grace. And that is something we’ll just keep having to remind each other of.

00:26:52:29 – 00:27:15:08
Ruth
That’s so interesting that you bring it up. I’ve heard other parents say, particularly with really young children. You know, if they go into a preschool classroom, let’s say, and they haven’t been there, what a lesson on learning how to engage. And all they’ve seen are masked faces, you know, in person, you know, what does a real person look like with a smile on their face?

00:27:15:16 – 00:27:36:08
Ruth
You given us just great, great advice. I hope our our audience will will take heed and we’ll put this on our Facebook. But, you know, those those four critical points of best practice, you know, having a North Star have a process. Just don’t throw it out there. Think about how you’re going to do it. Being transparent I love that.

00:27:36:19 – 00:27:56:17
Ruth
You know, it opens you up to, oops, did I make a mistake? But better to learn it now than to be down the path. And, you know, creating connection, those are just really, really wonderful. And how lucky we are to have you at the Kauffman Foundation as a resource and somebody to call and say, well, can you give me some advice?

00:27:56:17 – 00:27:58:02
Ruth
I need some help with this.

00:27:59:11 – 00:28:25:29
Miles Sandler
Well, this is a passion area of mine. You know, again, I think creating connection with people is one of the most important things we can do, whether that’s telling our story, telling our organization story, or inviting someone to tell us their story. We are I think, as humans, just connected by stories. And so, yes, I’m always excited to help anyone and provide suggestions, but also to hear what they’re doing and learn from them.

00:28:26:28 – 00:28:28:06
Ruth
And the importance of listening.

00:28:28:20 – 00:28:29:01
Miles Sandler
Yeah.

00:28:29:24 – 00:28:35:05
Ruth
That’s great. Miles, thank you so much. We really appreciate your time. And your expertize.

00:28:35:19 – 00:28:39:08
Miles Sandler
Absolutely. Thank you so much, Ruth. And thank you for everything that you’re doing.

00:28:40:06 – 00:29:00:11
Ruth
Thank you for joining us for KC Cares, Kansas City’s nonprofit voice we’re produced by Charitable Communications, also a nonprofit. This KC Cares segment was brought to you by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, w w w dot Kauffman dot org to be a guest on KC Cares are underwriting opportunities to support the work we’re doing. Please visit our website.

00:29:00:11 – 00:29:22:20
Ruth
KC Care’s Online Dot org and spread the love. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter at KC Cares Radio and Instagram at KC Cares online and catch us on Saturday mornings at 8 a.m. on ESPN. 15, 10 a.m. and 94.5 FM. Thank you for joining us and KC Cares.