Volume 18, 20

Transforming Organizations and Communities through Appreciative Inquiry

Jessica R. Dreistadt


Encouraging Communication
Cultivating and Leveraging Awareness of Individual and Organizational Strengths
Building Community
Creating a Magnificent Shared Vision of the Future
Conclusions and Implications
     Further Research
     The Practice of Organizational Leadership in Organizations
About the Author


Many nonprofit organizations have been shifting from a deficit- to an asset-based model of service delivery. Rather than focusing on what is wrong with people and communities, these organizations uncover and celebrate strengths that can be leveraged as individuals and groups pursue transformation. This represents a movement from imposing values and expectations on others to respecting and appreciating diverse ways of being, from sympathy and charity to opportunity and justice, from reinforcement of social hierarchy to removal of barriers, from being reactive to being proactive, and from egocentric giving to reciprocity and sharing.

Yet, the nonprofit business model relies on exploiting the perceived disadvantages and shortcomings of people and communities to solicit funds and to demonstrate program impact. This misalignment impedes the ability of the nonprofit sector to effectively empower, mobilize, and transform for long-term results. In addition, social change organizations often frame their mission and organize their activities within the context of conflict. While conflict serves an important purpose in societies and relationships, illuminating it can be divisive and detrimental rather than constructive when not coupled with understanding of, and appreciation for, the people, systems, processes, policies, and things that are a function of the resolution or change being sought.

Appreciative inquiry is a tool that can positively impact the discourse, direction, and actions of nonprofit organizations and the communities they serve. Appreciative inquiry is an organization- or system-wide process that uncovers stories about past successes through peer interviews and dialogue in order to envision and work toward a radically positive future. This process can energize social change efforts by encouraging communication, cultivating and leveraging awareness of individual and organizational strengths, building community, and creating a magnificent shared vision of the future.

Encouraging Communication

Meaningful, frequent, sincere communication connects and energizes dyads and groups engaged in social change work. Communication through words and symbols is a rich resource (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2000). It weaves the fabric of relationships and cooperation. Lack of communication fosters complacency and makes it impossible to facilitate change (Alinsky, 1971). Through the process of communicating, groups identify and develop an understanding of things that are collectively meaningful; this inspires learning, collaborative action, and change. In nonprofit organizations, communication helps employees, volunteers, donors, and program participants understand community and individual needs, select interventions and the processes through which they will be implemented, and build a stronger sense of purpose and community.

The meanings inherent in communication are subjective, transient, complex, and often submerged. People interpret their interactions through the lens of their life experiences (Alinsky, 1971), influencing subsequent thoughts and behavior. The way people choose to understand social interactions and structures is also influenced by their values (Gergen, 1982). Our thoughts are influenced by our expectations and our thoughts and visions shape our experience of reality (Cooperrider, 2000). Interpretations of reality are not static and definable; rather, they are subjective and mobile (Gergen, 1982). We simultaneously coexist within multiple interpretations of realities with movement in and out of those contexts according to the situation (Berger and Luckman, 1966). An experience can simultaneously have multiple dynamic meanings within an organization (van der Haar and Hosking, 2004). Facilitating intentional communication through appreciative inquiry can help organizations sort through this intricacy to more clearly see and navigate the dynamic realities being continually co-created by its members. Appreciative inquiry creates new pools of knowledge and new ways of collectively interpreting the world (Bushe and Kassam, 2005). This process can help nonprofit organizations articulate vision and mission, clarify goals and objectives, understand the diverse desires of multiple stakeholders, and integrate individual, organizational, and community goals.

Because surveys only reveal superficial information (Lewin, 1946), appreciative inquiry uses peer interviews to explore past successes. Interviews reveal social facts about the past based on real experiences rather than generalized opinions (Preskill and Tzavaras Catsambas, 2006). By limiting discussion to past experiences, participants envision solutions over which they have the power to control (Onyett, 2009). Interview questions stimulate meaningful dialogue among people working toward common organizational goals, providing an opportunity for them to connect, explore, and dream while recognizing the wonder of their work and of their organization.

Question construction shapes dialogue (Preskill and Tzavaras Catsambas, 2006) frames the context of exploration (Schein, 1999), and determines what will be learned (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader, 2010). Topics of inquiry provide a navigation system for the movement of organizations; by exploring a particular topic, an organization naturally incorporates the findings into its activities (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). Nonprofit organizations can often be subsumed into a cycle of complaining about community challenges and problematic individuals. The process of conducting peer interviews using intentionally positive questions can help nonprofit organizations, and the people working within them, deeply explore exceptional stories to connect with the inspirational and energizing core of the organization.

Dialogue is encouraged by asking questions (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2005). The interview process stimulates dialogue among those who are engaged with the work of the organization. Dialogue builds a group's repertoire of meaning and creates a context in which learning and change can take place (Schein, 2003). Nonprofit organizations are often under-resourced with limited time to fulfill daily responsibilities; taking time to engage in inquiry may at first seem to be wasteful. Dialogue can benefit and strengthen nonprofit organizations by creating and solidifying bonds among peers, tapping into the collective conscience of the organization, unleashing positive energy, and setting the stage for future collaboration. Including diverse stakeholders, including donors, program participants, board members, volunteers, and staff, in appreciative inquiry ensures that the meaning making process is truly inclusive with the result of shared understanding about the organization's assumptions, motivations, and future direction.

People prefer to be engaged in conversation rather than to be directed in their work (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader, 2010). Appreciative inquiry facilitates action and opens up organizational possibilities through carefully crafted questions that provoke thought, encourage sharing, and stimulate dialogue. Appreciative inquiry provokes sincere curiosity (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2000; Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005; Neville, 2008). Developing that curiosity leads to ongoing change (Neville, 2008). Inquiry is an intervention that begins the process of organizational change (Schein, 1999; Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). Asking questions promotes organizational growth and learning (Preskill and Tzavaras Catsambas, 2006). By facilitating the change process through appreciative inquiry, organization members uncover and express their hopes and desires, recognize and build upon their own ideas, learn from their past successes and apply them to the future, create a place for themselves in pursuit of the organization's dreams, and form connections across the group to buttress ongoing cooperation. This leads to increased enthusiasm and efficacy as the organization implements change initiatives that emerge from the appreciative inquiry process. This holistic, inclusive approach is well-suited for the nonprofit sector, which often eschews the oppression of hierarchy and cultural imperialism.

Appreciative inquiry provides a means for organization members to both hear and be heard. Language is an important transformative tool (Gergen, 1982). Translating thoughts, symbols, and dreams into words and enthusiastically sharing them with others creates momentum toward enacting change. Listening validates others' experiences (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader, 2010). Exchanging stories, embracing new ideas, and establishing common ground creates a positive culture that supports affirmation, growth, learning, and change.

Creating new knowledge leads to transformational change; therefore, altering mental processes must precede or override attempts to change behavior (Bushe and Kassam, 2005). Organizational and social change are the result of cognitive change (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 2000). Through participation in intentionally positive dialogue, organization members transform the content and patterns of their thoughts to create new frameworks through which the organization's work can be interpreted. Theories provide lenses through which organizational behavior is noticed and interpreted (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 2000). Organizations can be changed by changing the theories used to understand them (Bushe, 2000). The process of appreciative inquiry collects stories about prime organizational experiences and organizes them into prevalent themes. These themes can highlight the most significant aspects of nonprofit organizations' work, redirect psychic and physical energy into more productive and essential activities, diminish the domination of negativity and pessimism, and guide future conversations toward the organization's positive vision for the future.

Appreciative inquiry provides an opportunity for employees, volunteers, program participants, and others to open their hearts and minds in new and unexpected ways. By liberating thought, the possibilities for future action become open-ended (Morgan, 2005). Appreciative inquiry stimulates thinking and encourages the release of ideas that would have otherwise been suppressed.

Conversation may be constrained and ideas censored in appreciative inquiry due to its emphasis on memories related to successes and strengths (Fitzgerald, Oliver, and Hoxsey, 2010). Working in nonprofit organizations can be challenging with many individual, situational, and social factors influencing the course and outcome of an organization's work. Although these factors are outside the control of organization members, due consideration and contemplation through a complementary process may help staff, volunteers, and donors more deeply understand the complexity of their work and even identify possible solutions.

Cultivating and Leveraging Awareness of Individual and Organizational Strengths

Organizations have utilized a deficit-based approach to problem identification and solving since the 1930s (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2008). This is a prevailing, though somewhat shifting, paradigm in the nonprofit sector. Most grant proposals require an explanation of the need that the organization or program plans to address. Program participants are sometimes seen as problems to be solved rather than people to be celebrated. Concerns about financial sustainability, board and volunteer engagement, and employee burnout overwhelm many in the sector, overshadowing positive potentials.

Appreciative inquiry recognizes that organizations are solutions in progress rather than problems in need of being fixed (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005; Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2008). When using a problem solving approach, organizations tend to limit solutions to lists of the most popular ideas (Peelle, 2006). Appreciative inquiry digs broader and deeper by collecting stories from a significant cross-section of the organization and using them as a springboard to create solutions that will bring the organization closer to fulfillment of its vision and mission. Improvements in performance are realized not by ameliorating failures (Cooperrider, 2000) but by liberating strengths.

There is a cumulative impact to problem and success identification; people tend to find more and more of what they seek (Preskill and Tzavaras Catsambas, 2006). This self-fulfilling prophecy influences individual relationships, motivation, and organizational performance. Appreciative inquiry is built upon a foundation of strengths (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). This foundation allows organizations to support the development of personal and collective power (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003) which leads to organizational and social transformation.

Positive power remains nebulous in our society (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader, 2010). In the nonprofit sector, which directly works to eliminate social inequities or to alleviate their impact, power itself is often eschewed by well-meaning social servants or reactively enacted by activists that refuse and resist the system. The recognition of personal power is liberating (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Power, whether individual or collective, is the driving force of life (Alinsky, 1971). Appreciative inquiry helps people recognize and utilize their positive power to transform organizations and communities.

Disconnection from power, and the ability to use it for good, may be related to pessimism and apathy. Prevalent use of negative language may lead to a loss of connection with the power to change things (Christie, 2006). People may not contemplate change without the awareness of their ability to make a difference (Alinsky, 1971). Appreciative leaders transform potential into power (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader, 2010). The appreciative inquiry process identifies situations in which individuals, perhaps without full awareness, felt powerful, in control, and alive. Remembering and sharing these experiences within organizations builds recognition of power, its transformational quality, and the possibilities of intentionally using it. Power is self-regenerating (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Once individuals and groups recognize and start using their power, momentum propels the group toward continued achievement of goals.

Focusing on strengths builds an organization's capacity for change by expanding its learning and creating positive energy (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). Strengths emerge through the inquiry process, which uncovers stories about the organization and its members at peak performance. All human systems have many wonderful ideas and stories, many of which may be underappreciated and underutilized (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2000). Nonprofit organizations have many stories upon which they can draw; these may include: the impetus for formation of the organization; people who have changed their lives as a result of involvement with the organization; programs and projects with tangible outcomes that enhanced the community; the impact of changed laws or government and corporate practices; or the camaraderie and synergy among staff, volunteers, and others that developed while engaged in this work. Appreciative inquiry moves those ideas and stories to the forefront, creating connections, inspiration, and visions of brilliant, but realistic, possibilities. Appreciative inquiry connects organizational strengths to vision and actions that move the organization toward that vision (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2008).

Negative messages often prevail in the nonprofit sector. These relate to diverse areas including lack of resources, overextension of staff, disengagement of board members, difficulty recruiting volunteers, unrealistic expectations of funders, holes in the social service system, noncomplying program participants, and unjust laws and regulations. Deficit language can lead to the destruction of relationships and cynicism within organizations (Ludema, 2000). In order for groups to be functional, there must be at least two positive messages for every negative message (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2008). Organizations can create a positive, cheerful, energetic culture by communicating at least five strengths-based messages for every one negative message (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005; Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader, 2010). Appreciative inquiry intentionally focuses on positive stories and strengths to enrich and enliven the organization's interactions and culture. 

Appreciative inquiry divides ideas, and by extension the people who embrace them, into positive and negative; this forces judgment (Fitzgerald, Oliver, and Hoxsey, 2010; van der Haar and Hosking, 2004).  Labeling experiences as being strength-based is a subjective exercise and hegemony may be reinforced through the process of deciding what is or is not included (Fitzgerald, Oliver, and Hoxsey, 2010). Appreciative inquiry mitigates this effect to some extent by engaging diverse stakeholders throughout every stage of the process; however, individuals may be reluctant to voluntarily participate if they feel that their voice has not been included in the past, they have dissenting views to those of leadership, or they are not fully confident in the potential of appreciative inquiry to transform the organization.

Appreciative inquiry acknowledges and attempts to reframe conflict and challenges (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Appreciating another person, inclusive of their complexity, contradiction, and complete range of experiences and emotions, is integral to forming true relationships (Fitzgerald, Oliver, and Hoxsey, 2010). Focusing on the positive may marginalize people with divergent ideas, suppress and systematically exclude their perspective, and limit opportunities for change (Grant and Humphries, 2006; Boje, 2010; Fitzgerald, Oliver, and Hoxsey, 2010). This may be particularly relevant for nonprofit organizations, as their supporters, workers, and beneficiaries typically include the full spectrum of social strata. While focusing on strengths builds optimism and enthusiasm, it may also cause pessimism and despair if not sincerely integrated into the organizational culture. Appreciative inquiry must be flexible so that it is authentic and affirming for all.

In co-operative inquiry groups, a similar approach to organizational development, suppressed negativity is intentionally liberated and emergent negative feelings are explored in the safety of a supportive group (Reason, 1999). The many dimensions of human interaction within organizations may be more fully understood and valued through a critical appreciative process that treats the apparent contradictions between the two methods as an inclusive paradox (Grant and Humphries, 2006). These alternatives offer a broader range of implementation that may be more suitable to the complexities of nonprofit organizations.

Building Community

Appreciative inquiry can and should engage multiple stakeholders including employees, volunteers, donors, and program participants (Miller, Aguilar, Maslowski, McDaniel, and Mantel, 2004). The appreciative inquiry process involves people from throughout an organization to ensure that the process accurately reflects the diversity of the group (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). In a nonprofit organization, program, administrative, and development staff, in addition to other stakeholders, should be involved to capture the full experiences and hopes of the organization.

Organizations can be viewed as a small society with their own culture and various subcultures simultaneously coexisting (Morgan, 2006). People within organizations share symbolic interpretations that contextualize and continuously create meaning as well as habits that ritualize behavior (Berger and Luckman, 1966). Humans have the capacity to change ritualized organizational behavior regardless of past experiences (Cooperrider, 2000). Through appreciative inquiry, organization members have the opportunity to review the assumptions upon which the organization and its rituals are built and are challenged to question their relevance (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2000; Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). This process defines the group and its purpose, giving new meaning to organizational relationships and energizing the group for continual convergence and transformation.

Appreciative inquiry integrates individual experiences within an organization into a shared story (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Organizations' stories are written, recorded, and remembered by its members. Organizations continually create their story through the interaction of the people involved; in appreciative inquiry, this is referred to as the poetic principle (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). The organization's story articulates the community's character, establishes and enhances relationships among its members, and provides a rich context through which culture is expressed.

Deficit-based approaches to organizational development lead to fragmentation, internal conflict, and despair (Barrett, 1995). Appreciative inquiry, as an asset-based approach, leads to an enhanced sense of solidarity among people within an organization (Cooperrider, 2000). Cooperation is promoted by removing barriers to participation and creating conditions that facilitate catalytic interaction (Srivastval and Cooperrider, 1986). Through the process of appreciative inquiry, organizational systems are redesigned to encourage innovation and collaboration (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Appreciative inquiry can help nonprofit organizations better align service delivery across departments, the needs of people served with programs offered, and the requests of funders with staff capacity. It can bring together diverse stakeholders as a united front working toward a shared inspirational vision of the future.

A stronger emphasis on partnerships across hierarchical structures emerged in the 1980s (Watkins and Cooperrider, 2000). Yet, those structures remain in place with frequently problematic boundary crossing. Past hurt, anticipation of future exclusion and oppression, and denial of cultural, political, or social hegemony may complicate the formation of genuine, trusting relationships. Appreciative inquiry must be sensitive to these dynamics and intentionally create a safe environment for community building.

Leadership is a critical element of appreciative inquiry. Leaders must create a safe environment for the exchange of ideas. Psychological safety is required for learning and change to take place (Schein, 1999). The appreciative inquiry process may pose a threat to the authority of insecure leaders (Willoughby and Tosey, 2007). By disconnecting from ego-driven thoughts and behaviors, leaders allow space for appreciative inquiry, and other organizational initiatives, to be successful. Supervisors' trust in subordinates can lead to enhanced performance (Brower, Lester, Korsgaard, and Dineen, 2009). Leaders must fully embrace appreciative inquiry in order for it to be successful. Appreciative inquiry can also be used to improve leadership practice through reflection and dreaming (Hart, Conklin, and Allen, 2008). This has a ripple effect on every aspect of leadership practice as well as on organizational interactions and activities.

Appreciative inquiry has been shown to be more effective in helping teams achieve their goals than creative problem solving (Peele, 2006). In addition, the solutions generated through appreciative inquiry are more collectively constructed than those generated through creative problem solving (Peele, 2006). Teams that engage in collective learning and that have greater pride and cohesion are more effective (Kozlowski and Ilgen, 2006). Appreciative inquiry can energize groups by liberating them from unproductive patterns of behavior through revelation and incorporation of new paradigms (Bushe, 2000). Increased social bonding leads to enhanced capacity for change (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). When a team is inspired and energized, change is more rapid (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2005). Stronger organizational alignment, increased communication, and increased productivity are all positive long-term impacts of appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2005). By focusing on solutions rather than on problems, building positive supportive relationships, and provoking creative dialogue, the process of appreciative inquiry builds community, generates group dreams, and promotes team and organizational effectiveness.

Professional development, even that which is inspirational, is not sufficient to enact change (Lewin, 1946). Meaningful and sustainable change relies on the cultivation of genuine relationships (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2008). In the appreciative inquiry process, organization members are influential co-researchers. Solutions that are self-generated tend to be the most successful and sustainable (Schein, 1999). Appreciative inquiry situates individual experience within the context of relationships and communal practice, capitalizing on both personal and social motivators.

Many human service organizations have organized World Cafes, an adaptation of the appreciative inquiry process (Fouche and Light, 2010). In these scheduled forums, social workers have the opportunity to share ideas, reflect on practice, and envision innovation. This results in deeper relationships, increased collaboration, and transformed paradigms. Another means of engagement is the solutions-focused approach which applies positive solution seeking to everyday decision making processes the rather than undertaking an organization-wide appreciative inquiry initiative (Onyett, 2009). World Cafes and the solutions-based approach may be helpful processes for organizations that do not have sufficient resources to invest in appreciative inquiry or lack commitment from leadership to fully open up and transform the organization. They also offer a practical means of bringing together people from across organizations that are working toward similar goals. Appreciative inquiry can also be weaved into program evaluation; this serves as a means to meaningfully engage program participants and to improve morale around this often underappreciated process (Preskill and Tzavaras Catsambas, 2006).

The appreciative inquiry process is understood through the lens of, and adapted to be meaningful for, the local culture and individual perceptions (van der Haar and Hosking, 2004). It should be designed to integrate with the people, processes, and philosophies that are already in place in order to move the group to a more positive paradigm.

Creating a Magnificent Shared Vision of the Future

Nonprofit organizations are created to provide a mechanism to realize a communal dream (Miller, Aguilar, Maslowski, McDaniel, and Mantel, 2004). The possibility of change stimulates hope (Alinsky, 1971). Founded with a sense of optimism, nonprofit organizations often become mired in the doldrums of daily routines, responsibilities, and frustrations. Organizations sometimes continue to pursue their founders' goals long after the utility of doing so was valuable or relevant (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Appreciative inquiry provides nonprofit organizations with a systematic method to re-evaluate its assumptions, mission, and practices and to explore future possibilities that better meet the needs of the community and help it realize its potential.

Appreciative inquiry provides an opportunity to share individual dreams, interpret and reinvent those dreams through social interaction, and create new collective dreams that incorporate the best of everyone's intentions. Appreciative inquiry not only identifies but also mobilizes collective dreams (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2000). Visions that are collectively constructed have a greater propensity to be realized than those that are imposed from the top of the organizational hierarchy (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader, 2010). Appreciative inquiry uncovers, energizes, and makes possible previously repressed dreams for the future (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005).

Effective managers recognize the fluidity of organizational behavior (Morgan, 2006). The world is always changing and this can be effectively lived through by remaining flexible (Alinsky, 1971). Change is not an explicit goal of appreciative inquiry; rather, it is a process that leads to individual and organizational transformation (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). By reprioritizing success, motivators, and dreams, organizations that participate in appreciative inquiry become more responsive to emerging shifts within the group and in the environment as time and new experiences unfold.

In appreciative inquiry, visions of the future emerge from discussion about the organization's past (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2008).Our future dreams materialize when we live as though they are real in the present (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Future visions can cause change in the present (Cooperrider, 2000). Thus, appreciative inquiry demonstrates that there is a metaphysical connection between the past, present, and future. By integrating collective vision into every day organizational activities, the exceptional becomes the expectation (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2008). An organization's most profound dreams for the future can be realized through connection to the past and activities in the present.

The appreciative inquiry process promotes generative learning which is self-sustaining (Bushe and Kassam, 2005). Organizations that continually learn build momentum to conceptualize and implement new ideas. Envisioning solutions, which stimulates generative learning, leads to innovation (Barrett, 1995). Appreciative inquiry expedites change by focusing on positive possibilities rather than analyzing and addressing continuously changing problems (Watkins and Cooperrider, 2000). Appreciative inquiry may not yield concrete answers but rather opens up an organization to ongoing exploration and dialogue (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 2000). Appreciative inquiry is not only an intentional process, it becomes a new way of organizing and doing business. This way embraces future possibilities and invests energy in cultivating ideas and resources to continually support their pursuit.

By involving leadership in the appreciative inquiry process, the capacity to implement organizational dreams is increased (Christie, 2006). Leaders symbolically communicate that it is safe for others to be open and innovative (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005) and inspire high levels of involvement throughout the organization (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom, 2003). Commitment from, and active involvement of, the board of directors, executive director, and department leaders send a message that the organization welcomes and encourages the exploration of ideas and is willing to invest in group generated solutions.

Assumptions may limit our capacity to envision the future, particularly when they are invisible (Neville, 2008). Organizational change involves a process of unlearning and relearning thought processes, beliefs, and understandings about the world (Schein, 1999). Appreciative inquiry challenges assumptions so that groups can envision a future that would have previously been seen as unattainable. Future visions that do not adequately capture and articulate dreams may cause a sense of misery (Cooperrider, 2000). A skilled appreciative inquiry facilitator will carefully balance the group's capacity with its motivation, seek to illuminate the full palette of organizational dreams, and collaboratively craft future dreams using the words, symbols, and context of the organization and its members.

Participatory dreaming can be healing and liberating (Repede, 2009). People can tap into the collective subconscious as a transformative practice by integrating this into the process of appreciative inquiry. Participatory dreaming may be particularly helpful to groups immersed in internal or external conflict as they seek to transcend the current situation.

Despite its transformational capacity, future-oriented action research is often overlooked (Chandler and Torbert, 2003). Appreciative inquiry has grown since its inception in the 1980s. It offers promise to organizations seeking an alternative to the problem solving approach which is rooted in the past and may be slow paced, reactive, and demotivating.


Appreciative inquiry has been used in many nonprofit organizations including the The Cleveland Clinic where pioneering research was performed, Head Start, Save the Children, World Vision, and the Coalition for Sexual Assault Programs (Christie, 2006; Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, 2008). This process is particularly relevant to nonprofit organizations in which limited resources and overwhelming challenges can lead to a detrimental and exacerbating deficit-based approach.

Appreciative inquiry offers many benefits to nonprofit organizations. It can bring together diverse stakeholders, build a stronger sense of community and common purpose, generate motivational enthusiasm, transform thinking and behavior, promote learning and change, improve organizational performance, and continually remind stakeholders about future being pursued.

While Alinsky-esque organizing methods may intuitively seem contradictory to the underlying assumptions of appreciative inquiry, the two approaches are indeed complementary. Critical appreciative inquiry and co-operative inquiry offer two ways to meaningfully and purposefully integrate conflict and consensus worldviews. While the realities of nonprofit organizations can be hard and painful, the vision of the future and the means by which it is pursued need not be.   

Conclusions and Implications

Further Research

Action research is gaining momentum with an increasing emphasis on empowerment (Dick, 2010). Appreciative inquiry fits well within this trend and offers a methodology that is an alternative to the positivist action research that falls outside of the Lewinian tradition.

Appreciative inquiry has captured the attention of a few critical researchers who question the assumptions of this process and have explored the means by which critical and appreciative approaches may be combined to gain a deeper and more complex vision for the future. Additional action research in this area can be conducted to refine this integration process. This research would be particularly relevant for social change organizations that operate based on a conflict model.

Grantmakers, federated funds, coalitions, and nonprofit collaboratives are potential appreciative inquiry participants. This research would reveal transformation at both the organizational and community level.

Additional research in linguistics and cognition could unveil additional nuances of human interaction within the scope of appreciative inquiry processes. While the theoretical base of appreciative inquiry is broad, there may be additional thinkers, such as Manheim, Sartre, Goffman, Wilbur, and Chopra, whose work would add interesting dimensions to appreciative inquiry practice.

The Practice of Organizational Leadership in Organizations

While appreciative inquiry is an intentional process that is conducted within organizations, its assumptions and implementation offer insight into effective leadership practice. Groups of people come together to pursue a common dream. Over time, this dream may become diluted or even irrelevant. Inquiry and dialogue stimulate thinking and evolutionary mindsets that reveal collective dreams for the future. Employees yearn for the opportunity to share their ideas and pursue their dreams in community; leaders can provide this opportunity to the benefit of the organization. A positive, forward-thinking approach may be more flexible, timely, and transformational than a problem solving approach. Leaders must be willing to let go of their preconceived ideas about the organization's future direction in order to provide space for the collective group vision to emerge and flourish. Organization members will enthusiastically pursue a vision that they purposefully helped to construct. Appreciative inquiry provides a means for leaders to build positive relationships, update their understanding of organizational meaning and purpose, engage and motivate key stakeholders, and move the organization toward its best performance.


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About the Author

Jessica R. Dreistadt is the founding director of The Fruition Coalition and is studying for a doctorate in organizational leadership at Eastern University.