Advisory Team Second Edition: Lessons Learned from a Participatory Design Process

Author: Megan MacDavey

For the past couple of years, the Tower Foundation has been exploring ways to bring one of our values to life: diverse voices. The Foundation describes what valuing diverse voices looks like as:

We listen to and learn from those with different points of view and perspectives. More than that, we seek to be proximate with the communities we serve – continually engaging in respectful conversation and incorporating what we hear into our work.

One way that this commitment has played out is through the launch of our Tower Foundation Advisory Team (first edition!) in 2019. This team was made up of young adults from Western New York who have lived experience, and thus expertise, as people with an intellectual disability. Alongside the team of Tower Foundation Program Officers, these advisors gave us insight into grant proposals, which were then shared directly with the applicants. Through this process, we learned so much about what is important in this type of convening, from prioritizing fun and team-building, to what you need to know about philanthropy, and keeping an accessibility mindset throughout.

Picture of 2019-2020 Advisory Team members and Tower Foundation staff

The truth is that after the first two rounds of grant review with our Advisors, we were hooked. We knew we wouldn’t be able to go back to a time when we didn’t have regular, direct interaction with the people who are at the center of the Tower Foundation’s focus. 

When COVID-19 struck our communities, we put our plans to expand the Advisory Team to Massachusetts on hold. But we didn’t stop thinking about how to engage young people in our work. Over those first few months of the pandemic, we looked into models like participatory philanthropy and imagined how this work could fit within that framework. We were thrilled to see the philanthropic community start and then sustain a conversation about sharing power with their communities. We also launched our internal diversity, equity, and inclusion work; we see the Advisory Team as a core part of the Foundation’s equity strategy.

In early 2021, we decided to go big and imagine a way that we could bring together people with lived expertise across all of the Tower Foundation’s focus areas (intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, mental health challenges, and substance use disorders) and all of our geographies. But we knew we couldn’t embark on this new expanded Advisory Team without getting the perspectives of future Advisors themselves and that of a few of our stellar grant partners who have lots of experience convening young people. [Shout out to Behavioral Health Innovators, Eye to Eye, Gloucester Public Health Department, GLYS of Western New York, Martha’s VIneyard Community Services and the Island Disability Coalition, The NAN Project, and RAW Art Works.] With the help of Winifred Olliff of Chromodoris Consulting, an inclusive design practitioner and thought partner, we launched a participatory design process, poking, prodding, testing and tweaking our old Advisory Team model to fit this new expanded, inclusive group. We explored: 

  1. How do we create a team that is friendly, productive, and values every voice? 
  2. How do we make sure that the Advisory Team experience is valuable to the Tower Foundation and the Advisory Team members alike? 
  3. What are the best ways for the Advisory Team members to review Foundation materials and share their thoughts and ideas with us?

The Tower Foundation convened a Design Crew made up of young people with lived expertise and grant partners with convening chops for three separate hour-and-a-half meetings throughout May 2021. Following these sessions, Winifred spearheaded an assessment of the whole experience. Here is a copy of that report.

With this report in-hand, we are about to launch our new, expanded Advisory Team. This second edition of our Advisory Team will be reviewing a handful of grant applications that we receive through our August grant cycle. Advisors will offer their input to strengthen those proposals. We can’t wait to get underway and share what we learn.