Do You REALLY Want Consumer Participation? Five Ways to Make It Happen

 

The lack of consumer participation is very high on the group hand-wringing index. Everyone knows they should have consumers involved in planning and decision-making but it’s just so ‘gosh-darn’ hard. No argument there, consumer participation is very difficult but it can be done and done well. It just takes time, commitment, and some serious, sustained creativity.

Here are five ways to increase the involvement of consumers in your planning and decision-making:

#1: Take the time to establish consumer participation as a shared value in your group.

It’s easy to announce an effort to involve consumers; easier still to say that the funding source requires consumers to be at the table. It’s one more box to be checked off. However, commitment to consumer participation among group members will be weak if there isn’t an informed and solid consensus about its value. How to accomplish this? Form a study group to examine different models of involvement. Talk to consumers about what it would take to get their enthusiastic involvement. Honestly assess barriers that may exist to participation and gauge the group’s willingness to overcome those barriers. This might mean changing the way business is done. Is the group willing to do that?

 #2: Determine what you want from consumer participation.

If you only want to fulfill a funder requirement or your own vague sense of the need for inclusion, consumers will see right through you. No one wants to attend meetings or participate in functions where they are just filling a chair with a big sign on it – CONSUMER. They want to have a genuine function and be important to the group’s planning, decision-making and community impact. One way to address this is to hammer out a consumer participation job description. Best to do this with consumers at the table to avoid the inevitable mistakes that will occur if the professionals go it alone.

#3: Be prepared to change how you do business.

First and foremost on this list is the need to look at WHEN meetings are held. It is generally not going to be possible to involve consumers in meetings that are held during the business day. Bottom line: many consumers are working and their work does not afford them the opportunity to attend meetings during the day. Conversely, professional folks are basically paid to attend meetings. That’s what they do during the day. At night and on weekends, they have family responsibilities, recreation, maybe education to fill their time. Are you willing to hold meetings in the evening or on weekend mornings? A big shock to the group system, that’s for sure, but important to think about. One way to address this may be to alternate weekday meetings with meetings held in the evenings or weekends.

#4: Find a way to pay consumers.

So often, every member of a coalition is being paid to attend meetings but we expect consumers to VOLUNTEER. Consumers quickly discern that they are the only ones expected to show their altruistic selves and it engenders resentment. It is not easy to find funding to support paying consumer stipends because not all funders understand the value of consumers’ time or buy into the notion that they should be paid for their participation. This is where a strong shared commitment to consumer participation can convince funders of its value. Paying people also speaks to their value in the process. If you really want consumer participation, show that you value it. One way to address this might be to levy a membership fee to support coalition operation as well as the payment of stipends. Seeking a sustainable line item in grant requests is another possible strategy.

#5: Make your meetings worth attending.

Don’t go through all the difficulty of getting good consumer participation only to have meetings filled with long, boring committee reports and extended ‘insider’ discussions. Make your meetings accessible in terms of location, content, and ambiance. Welcome all members. Create agendas that are decision-focused. Share useful information. Provide training on new skills. And make the environment warm, inviting, and engaging. If I had my way, every meeting would start off with a big pot of soup or table full of everyone’s favorite casseroles. Then when Consumer X walks into the school cafeteria for an after-work meeting, he smells dinner, he sees happy people, he’s nourished and ready to work. How you do this is by your group’s members making a commitment to making it happen. It’s not rocket science, it’s just chicken and rice.

Consumer participation will make whatever you’re doing better and more effective. But you get what you pay for – in terms of effort, commitment, and resources. Think about it – is it worth it to you?

Always interested in your comment and ideas. Let me know what you think!