Engage to Change

Engage to Change

Service organizations are meeting the immediate needs of their constituents and provide essential supports. At the same time, many of these groups recognize how larger policies and procedures can make their job harder and limit options and opportunities of their program participants. With increasing inequality, slashes in public budgets, and greater demand on their services, nonprofits are looking for new ways to do their work.

Several years ago, we were struck by the way some of our grantee partners were changing how they saw the people they serve, who are commonly seen as recipients or beneficiaries of the organization’s expertise and services. Instead, a growing number of groups worked with their program participants as partners in making change in their own lives, the organization, and in the surrounding community. We hosted a series of conversations with a dozen New York City nonprofit service delivery organizations to discuss the motivation, benefits, and challenges of embracing this way of engaging clients and community members.

Engage to Change comes out of these discussions and a mapping process to catalogue the varied modes of doing the work. Our conversations were facilitated by the Building Movement Project which has a decade of experience working with nonprofits, especially service providers, on how they can integrate social change practices into their everyday responsibilities. We drew on the design skills of the Center for Urban Pedagogy in order to have a compelling, visual way to explain the changes that are taking place. It offers service providers and funders concrete examples of why meaningful participant engagement makes a difference. We also provide a list of resources that can be helpful for those who want more information.

The set of strategies outlined here describes how some service organizations are integrating social change into their everyday work. Supporting the voice of their service recipients helps participants gain a sense of efficacy and gives organizations new ideas and power to make change.

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Housing, food, counseling, and other social services fill critical needs in underserved communities.

But these needs are also the symptoms of systemic problems.

Some service organizations are addressing both these symptoms and their causes. And they’re doing it with the help of important experts: the participants they serve.


Here are strategies that some service organizations use to integrate social change into their everyday work.

Each organization is different! Size, mission, and capacity shape how different organizations carry out this work. One group may use many of these strategies, and another might focus on one.

Figure out systems and structures that need changing:

  • Listen to participants, and identify and prioritize issues with them.
  • Host civic education events.

Share power with participants:

  • Bring participants onto boards and advisory committees.
  • Train and support participants as leaders within the organization.
  • Create pathways for participants to become staff members.

Organize around long-term outcomes:

  • Introduce advocacy and community organizing activities.
  • Register and mobilize voters.
  • Train and support participants as leaders within the community.









01. Organization’s structure and hiring practices reflect commitment to community advocacy, leadership development, and social change.

02. Staff and participants are aligned around community priorities and prepared to advocate for them.






01. Youth are empowered as educators and agents of social change.

02. Youth contribute directly to the long-term health and sustainability of their neighborhood.






01. Organization shifts from treating participants as clients to sharing power with them as members.

02. Membership programming provides a forum for identifying and prioritizing issues to organize around.

03. Members are engaged in shaping the organization and advocating for social change.

Special thanks to the participants in the New York Foundation’s Learning Lab:

Bridge Street Local Development Corporation
Chhaya Community Development Corporation
Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation
Fifth Avenue Committee
Henry Street Settlement
Jacob Riis Settlement House
MinKwon Center for Community Action
Neighbors Together
Queens Community House
Red Hood Initiative
Resilience Advocacy Project
Union Settlement House
United Neighborhood Houses

This project is a collaboration of the New York Foundation, the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), and the Building Movement Project.