Constituent Voice: Results from Maryland

October 17, 2016


Lehn M. Benjamin, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy & School of Public & Environmental Affairs, Indiana University



Do the people you serve have a voice in your organization?

In a survey of Maryland Nonprofits members conducted in 2014, 119 organizations responded to questions that asked how the organization involved the people it served and the benefits and costs of such efforts. The Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector, developed and promulgated by Maryland Nonprofits (through its Standards for Excellence Institute), encourages such involvement and suggests that “evaluations should include input from program participants,” “…[nonprofits] should monitor the satisfaction of participants,” and “the board should establish a rigorous board development strategy for recruiting and selecting new members…ensuring that the board has an appropriate mix of talent, connection to the community, and diversity..”

The survey was conducted in partnership with Dr. Lehn Benjamin at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and sent to over 700 organizations. Out of the 754 total possible respondents, 119 surveys were completed, for a response rate of 16%. Almost half of the 119 nonprofits that responded were human service organizations and almost half were smaller nonprofits with revenues under $500,000.

Here are a few highlights. Out of the 119 organizations that responded:

  • Over half (52%) reported using surveys, focus groups or other means to get regular feedback from their target population.
  • More than 1/3 (35%) reported that current or former members of their target population serve on the board of directors.
  • About 1/3 (29%) reported that their target population participated in discussions about goals and priorities for the organization.
  • 8% reported that their target population participated in staff hiring and 8% reported that their target population participated in staff evaluations.

These percentages may be overstated, as those nonprofits that engage their target population may be more likely to respond to the survey than those who do not. However, other surveys have found similar percentages of nonprofits reporting constituent engagement. [1]

What motivates organizations to take this extra step to amplify how their constituents are engaged in their organization? Let’s look at three possible reasons.

Better Program Outcomes

Constituent voice, including getting regular feedback from constituents, can help nonprofit organizations improve their programs and services. Feedback on everything from hours of operation, types of services provided, and staff practices can help nonprofits have a greater impact. For example, LIFT, a large anti-poverty nonprofit with offices in D.C., New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, noticed that some of the people they work with made extraordinary gains, some did not and others were somewhere in the middle. Why? They started using constituent feedback surveys to find out. What they found is that it was the quality of the relationship with staff that enabled those members to overcome tremendous obstacles to change their lives. So now LIFT monitors relationship quality, in addition to other variables, with regular

2 minute
surveys of those they work with. The survey results have confirmed their initial findings. Those who rate LIFT higher on things like relationship quality, make three times as much progress on their goals as those who do not.

Of those 94 organizations in our Maryland Nonprofits survey that indicated using at least one constituent engagement mechanism (e.g., on the board, advisory group, using feedback instruments): 

  • 39% reported that the participation of their target population helped improve services, to a great extent or to a very great extent.
  • 34% reported that the participation of their target population helped improve the decisions of the organization, to a great extent or a very great extent.
  • 20% reported that the participation of their target population helped improve staff performance, to a great extent or a very great extent.

Self-Efficacy Outcomes

Strategies to increase constituent voice in nonprofit organizations can also contribute to a greater sense of mastery for constituents themselves, separate and apart from the achievement of specific program goals. These gains usually happen as a result of a more engaged role in the organization itself, beyond getting feedback. These roles, if executed successfully can increase the confidence and sense of self-efficacy of constituents. Experimental research in social psychology suggests that making a contribution increases a sense of well-being and mastery (See Cohen 2009; Konrath and Brown 2012; Riessman 1965). If constituents are more engaged in the organization’s efforts to address the problem, this is one way to make a contribution.

The experience of Maryland Nonprofits members surveyed seemed to agree. Again, of those 94 organizations that reported using at least one constituent engagement mechanism:

  • 45% reported that the participation of their target population increased the confidence of their target population, to a great extent or a very great extent.
  • 36% reported that participation of their target population improved the skills of their target population, to a great extent or a very great extent.
  • 35% reported that participation of their target population reduced the isolation for members of their target population, to a great extent or a very great extent.

Democratic Outcomes
Strategies for increasing greater constituent voice in nonprofit organizations can support democratic outcomes. How? First, constituents can translate their sense of increased efficacy that they feel in the organization to the public arena (Kieffer 1984, Stevenson et al 2015). Second, working collectively on a problem—whether it be setting goals for the organization, discussing program choices—can lead members of those working groups to develop trust

each other and develop norms of reciprocity or what Putnam calls social capital. Social capital is a critical ingredient for a more robust democratic political system. The strongest evidence of nonprofits and democratic outcomes can be found in studies of grassroots and community-based organizations (e.g., Warren 2001).

Maryland Nonprofit members indicated that this outcome was also evident. Of those 94 organizations that reported using at least one type of constituent engagement mechanism: 

  • 20% reported that participation of their target population increased the participation of their target population in civic life (for example, voting, or engaging in other political activity), to a great extent or a very great extent.

While these findings are not generalizable, they do provide a window into the potential benefits for nonprofits of involving their constituents in the operation and governance of the organization. Of course, this approach also has costs for organizations but there have been a number of recent initiatives to make this process easier for nonprofits. For those interested in learning more about how to improve the role and voice of constituents in nonprofits. Here are three resources:

  1. Feedback Labs. They publish a newsletter, organize conferences and have a small grant program to support organizations in getting feedback from their constituents. See
  2. Fund for Shared Insight. This is a funder collaborative that supports research and innovative work to encourage constituent feedback. See
  3. Keystone Accountability. This organization wason
    the forefront of encouraging nonprofits to engage and get feedback from their stakeholders. They have a number of guides,

    and instruments that nonprofits can use:

If you have questions about the survey or the results, contact Professor Lehn M. Benjamin at

If you have questions about Maryland Nonprofits or the Standards of Excellence, contact Amy Coates Madsen at


About Lehn:

Lehn Benjamin’s work has been principally concerned with inequality. She worked in South Africa during the democratic transition, on the Senate Banking Housing and Urban Affairs Committee as a Congressional Fellow, and for the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. Prior to joining the faculty at the school, she spent 10 years on the faculty at George Mason University where she taught courses on nonprofit management, public

and performance measurement. Her research examines issues of accountability and effectiveness in the nonprofit sector. Her current projects explore these issues by looking at the daily work of frontline staff in nonprofits and the experience of the people they serve.



Cohen, Ayala. 2009. Welfare Clients’ Volunteering as a Means of Empowerment. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 38(3): 522-534.

Kieffer, Charles H. 1984. Citizen Empowerment: A Developmental Perspective. Prevention in Human Services 3(2-3): 9-36.

Konrath, Sara and Stephanie Brown. 2012. The Effects of Giving on Givers. Nicole Roberts and Matt Newman (Eds) Handbook of Health and Social Relationships. APA Books.

Riessman, Frank. 1965. The “Helper Therapy Principle”. Social Work. 10(2): 27-32.

Stevenson, Clifford et al. 2015. The Social Psychology of Citizenship and Social Exclusion: Introduction to the Special Thematic Section. Journal of Social and Political Psychology 3(2): 1-19.

Warren, Mark R. 2001. Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy. Princeton University Press.


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[1] The findings are consistent with other research from different states (see LeRoux 2009, Guo and Saxton 2010).