The Participatory Revolution in Nonprofit Management: Nonprofit Leaders Should Be Ready for Changes Brought about by the Increasing Interest, Opportunity, and Ability of Stakeholders to Make Decisions in Prevailing Nonprofit Organizational Structures and Governance, as Well as in Management and Leadership Practices

By Saxton, Gregory D. | The Public Manager, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Participatory Revolution in Nonprofit Management: Nonprofit Leaders Should Be Ready for Changes Brought about by the Increasing Interest, Opportunity, and Ability of Stakeholders to Make Decisions in Prevailing Nonprofit Organizational Structures and Governance, as Well as in Management and Leadership Practices


Saxton, Gregory D., The Public Manager


  The future that has already happened is not within [the organization];
  it is outside: a change in society, knowledge, culture, industry, or
  economic structure. It is, moreover, a break in the pattern rather
  than a variation in it.
  --Peter F. Drucker

Drucker wants organizational leaders to focus on the opportunities and challenges presented by changes in the external environment that are ongoing or have already occurred but have yet to be widely perceived. I argue that just such a "future" is underway: In the cultural sphere, people now create and publish their own books, movies, and music; they eagerly customize orders on restaurant meals; and blogging, "pod-casting," and other forms of targeted media are displacing mass media through satellite- and Internet-based communications. In the business world, shareholder revolts have skyrocketed; self-organizing teams, stakeholder analysis, and self-employment have steadily increased; organizational structures have flattened; and corporate democracy is beginning to take hold. In government, the devolution of power, public disclosure agreements, community score cards, public audits, and citizen satisfaction surveys are becoming ever more commonplace. And in politics, key elements of direct democracy, including citizen ballot initiatives, recalls, open primaries, and super majority and voter-approval rules for tax increases have all become increasingly popular.

These seemingly unconnected developments collectively point to a generalized surge in participatory practices and values throughout society. Thanks to an array of ongoing large-scale social changes, stakeholders now increasingly possess the capacity, interest, and opportunity to play a key role in decision making at the individual, organizational, and community levels alike. This growing propensity for participation has in turn begun to change prevailing nonprofit structures and management practices. A bona fide participatory society is emerging--and nonprofit leaders must be up to the challenge.

The Driving Forces of Participation

The skyrocketing levels of education in the post-World War II era constitute the primary long-term driving force of greater participation. Since 1940, the percentage of Americans aged twenty-five years and over who have completed high school has jumped from 24.1 percent to 83.6 percent, while that for those who have completed at least four years of college has increased from 4.6 percent to 26.5 percent. More than one in every two adults has now completed at least some college. This reverberates throughout society. In the aggregate, education is the major institution that builds citizens and fosters the spirit and values of popular participation. A college education in particular is associated with numerous enduring attitudinal changes--including making people less fatalistic and more individualistic, informed, activist, and ambitious. Increasing education also engenders highly relevant behavioral changes. Studies have shown that educated citizens are more likely to vote, more likely to participate in the political process, more likely to demand involvement in critical health-care-related decisions, and more likely to hold "participatory" attitudes--in favor of allowing employees, family members, and other normally excluded stakeholders to participate in relevant decision-making processes.

The second driving force is a long-term shift in value orientations. Simply put, younger generations are increasingly assuming the right to be included in the decision-making processes that most affect them. This diffusion of participatory attitudes is in line with what political scientist Ronald Inglehart has cogently argued--that each successive generation since World War II has placed a lower priority on "materialist" issues such as physical and economic security and a greater emphasis on "postmaterialist," or quality-of-life issues. A fundamental component of this postmaterialist value shift is the desire to have a greater say.

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The Participatory Revolution in Nonprofit Management: Nonprofit Leaders Should Be Ready for Changes Brought about by the Increasing Interest, Opportunity, and Ability of Stakeholders to Make Decisions in Prevailing Nonprofit Organizational Structures and Governance, as Well as in Management and Leadership Practices
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