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Building sense of ownership as source of motivation among stakeholders

By Madelon Eelderink

Dutch, please!

People often ask me, “How do I get people motivated to participate in my project?” “How do I create support?” I wish I could give them a magical answer, one like, “oh just do this and then you’ll have them. Delightful, it seems to me. Unfortunately, the reality is different. First of all, people often don’t want to participate in someone else’s project, they mainly want to participate in something of their own. And that’s where it starts. So we have to put energy into making the project “feel its own”. Or better: making the project our own. We can achieve this with Participatory Action Research (PAR).

By applying the basic principles of PAR, we gradually build up the sense of ownership among PAR participants during the PAR process. That ownership can be seen as the feeling that something is “yours,” something for which you feel responsibility and for which you are intrinsically motivated to become active. In practice, you often see that those involved do not get moving because they are ‘ordered’ to do a project or solution that does not feel like theirs. This in itself is not surprising: those involved generally do not want to participate in someone else’s project, they want to participate in their own project! We have to build up that sense of ownership in order to get people to actually start their desired change in a sustainable way. Below are a number of important building blocks of ownership, all of which should receive as much attention as possible in a PAR.

Being heard. The first building block for ownership is, as a participant, being able to express your own perspective to one or more persons -PAR practitioners- who listen from genuine interest and facilitate you in this. For example, it gives -at the beginning of the PAR- recognition of the problem but contributes throughout the PAR process to the feeling of ownership. So, as a PAR practitioner, make sure you continue to listen actively throughout the entire PAR process.

Recognizing your own perspective. A second building block follows once the PAR practitioner shares the initial PAR results, during the ‘Insights Sharing & Solution Identification’ stage. When you’ve displayed this well, participants recognize their perspective in it and see the broader context in which their perspective is embedded. This recognition of one’s own perspective is an important affirmation “that it is allowed to be there” and thus contributes to a sense of commitment and ownership over the situation to be changed. So, as a PAR practitioner, make sure that you get a good picture of participants’ perspectives and allow participants to reflect on them and make additions.

Feeling strenghtened by others. In addition to recognizing your own perspective in the results, the feeling that you are not alone in this is an important building block. In the joint reflection on the results with the participants in a group you get this going. Knowing that others experience the same problem -recognition of the problem- and being able to reflect on this with them is therefore also an important building block for ownership. As a PAR practitioner, therefore, make sure that participants can speak out to each other.

Shared insights. Experiencing eye-openers, ‘aha’ and ‘eureka’ moments together, or discovering something you didn’t know before gives the feeling of ownership an enormous boost. This discovery belongs to the participants and they will appropriate it. This gives new energy and motivation to tackle the situation at hand. During joint analysis with participants at the stage of Insights Sharing & Solution Identification, as a PAR practitioner you give participants the opportunity to make new discoveries themselves.

Choosing together. In a PAR, participants establish a shared ambition in which the new insights are embedded. As a PAR practitioner, you facilitate participants in clarifying the desired situation and shared ambition based on their insights gained. Then, they make their choices together for -in addition to the PAR process- the directions for solutions and the form and content of the action plan. This is one of the most important building blocks of ownership. Participants prioritize and choose (that is, not the PAR person), so it belongs to them. This building block is most prominent at the Insights Sharing & Solution Identification stage, when participants make choices together regarding solution direction(s). As a PAR practitioner, clearly show that they -not you- are making the choices.

Empowering each other. Knowing that what you are doing has a positive influence on the bigger picture that benefits others and vice versa can be enormously motivating. This makes everything you do extra valuable and therefore very useful! That is why it is important for PAR practitioners to understand where solutions and actions reinforce each other. This building block is applicable from the moment solution directions are chosen, i.e. at the stage of Action Plan Co-creation and beyond.

Building a solution together. If, as a PAR participant, you yourself experience the process of building a solution direction into a concrete action plan, nothing is “new” or “uncharted territory” anymore. You influence the co-creation process and recognize all the elements of the action plan. It gets into your blood, so to speak. Therefore, this is one of the most important building blocks of ownership and takes place mainly at the Action Plan Co-creation stage. As a PAR practitioner, you facilitate the participants in building the solution direction together into a concrete action plan and make it clear that, as a PAR practitioenr, you are not co-building yourself.

Formality. Once the result of a nice action plan is there and participants are proud of the result, the next boost for ownership is that this action plan is made formal in one way or another: “it is there and it is really ours!”. This gives the action plan a sense of existence. This takes place at the Formalization & Transfer stage and can be done in many different ways; what is important is that as a PAR practitioner you let participants decide which way of formalization suits them best.

Appreciation. An important building block that is often overlooked is appreciation. Participants are proud of the resulting action plan and like to see that confirmed by appreciation, in whatever form, from the right person or persons. Apart from the appreciation that you as PAR practitioner express throughout the process and encourage participants to express, the appreciation referred to here as a building block is somewhat more formal in nature, is often expressed by an authority actor and occurs primarily at the Formalization & Transfer stage. As a PAR practitioner, consult with your participants what form of appreciation -and by whom- is desired and include this person (or persons) in the communication of your results.

Celebration. The shaping of the action plan can be seen as a success that the group of participants achieved together. Celebrating this outcome -being able to express pride- is an important building block of ownership. The joy that a celebration brings gives extra energy and motivation to get started!

The sense of ownership that PAR triggers, ensures that participants confidently take a role in the action plan and feel responsible for the successful execution of the tasks associated with that role. Once participants have been able to build optimal ownership and motivation and they enthusiastically set about implementing their action plan, one thing is very important: maintain that sense of ownership! Sometimes this feeling is threatened by authority actors who, with their best intentions, want to help those involved – the implementers of the action plan – too much, jeopardizing their sense of autonomy. For example, in municipalities involved municipal officials sometimes want so much for a (citizen) initiative to succeed that they take the lead and pull the initiative towards themselves, as it were. The participants then feel that the initiative no longer belongs to them, but to the municipality. In this way, as a civil servant, you knock all the carefully built-up ownership of participants out from under their feet, and with it the motivation to remain active. So please, don’t!

That is why we as PAR practitioners are keen on this during the Monitor stage. By monitoring initiatives, paying attention to this in reflection sessions with those involved, and making any authority actors aware of this, we can largely prevent this from happening and repair any cracks that may have appeared in time.

Want to learn more about Participatory Action Research? Join our PAR Practitioners Program or order the Handbook Participatory Action Research authored by SevenSenses founder Madelon Eelderink!