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Photo by LIFT

Note from Beth:  I’ve just returned from an amazing training project in Cambodia and will be sharing more about that this coming week.  But for now, Listening and feedback loops are important skills for nonprofit leaders and for organizations to get better results.   In my training work with emerging nonprofit leaders,  teaching how to ask powerful questions and hone your listening skills is part of the leadership development curriculum and workshops.  Listening is also an important competency to master for an effective social media strategy. That’s why I’m honored to share this guest post from Melinda T. Tuan, project manager, for the Fund for Shared Insight.

Four Early Lessons Learned in the Quest to Improve Feedback Loops in Philanthropy – Guest Post by Melinda T. Tuan

Do nonprofits and foundations listen to the people they seek to help and act on what they hear?

The answer is…sort of…

A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) finds that 99 percent of nonprofit organizations collect feedback from the people they seek to help. They use a variety of methods including focus groups, surveys, and one-on-one conversations. But, most nonprofits do NOT collect feedback in an ongoing, systematic way. And, more disturbingly, even though a majority of foundation CEOs believe seeking beneficiary feedback will increase their impact, fewer than half of nonprofits receive funding to collect feedback. Most nonprofits report the vast majority of funders do not have a deep understanding of their intended beneficiaries’ needs.

Fund for Shared Insight is trying to change that. We are a collaborative effort 30 funders strong, committed to funding, sharing, and learning about work to hear from the people we seek to help in order to influence and improve foundation and nonprofit practices. Since 2014, we have made grants to over 40 nonprofit organizations to help them systematically collect feedback.

In the spirit of encouraging others to join us on this feedback journey, we want to share early lessons learned from our nonprofit partners as they work through various stages of the feedback loop. Whether you are a nonprofit beginning to collect feedback or already have a system in place you wish to improve; a foundation interested in supporting nonprofits to collect feedback; or someone who is simply interested in learning more about feedback and philanthropy, we hope you find these stories and tips useful. We invite you to dialogue with us about your own experience and encourage others to join in this important work.

  1. Designing an Effective Feedback Loop

There are several issues our nonprofit partners have considered in designing their feedback loops, including the timing and frequency of feedback collection. These issues have the potential to affect the representativeness of data collected—which is paramount for ensuring meaningful feedback. Following the tips below can help you design the feedback loop that is most effective for your organization.

Carefully Map Out Timing

In Urban Institute’s work with Feeding America—a network of over 200 food banks across the country—they were careful to avoid collecting feedback in November and December. These are the two busiest months of the year for food banks and pantries and implementing new surveys would overburden already stretched staff. In addition, the population that frequents food pantries in these months may not be as representative of the general population that uses the food bank during the rest of the year.

More is Not Always Better—Evaluate Frequency

Some organizations survey participants after every interaction with the organization, which can create “survey fatigue” and lower response rates and quality of feedback over time. To combat survey fatigue, the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO)—a prisoner re-entry job training and placement program—is working to implement their surveys at the strategic “moments of truth” when a significant interaction or milestone occurs in the participant’s experience with CEO.

  1. Collecting the Feedback

There are many ways to collect feedback, and our nonprofit partners use a variety of methods. LIFT—an organization working to help families break the cycle of poverty—uses iPad kiosks in their reception areas. CEO implements text-based smartphone surveys with both numeric and open-ended responses. YouthTruth implements an online survey in multiple languages, whereas Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco uses paper surveys in English, Spanish, and Cantonese then enters results by hand into SurveyMonkey as part of Shared Insight’s Listen for Good initiative. Key to all these approaches is ensuring respondents have accessible ways to provide input that promote as much candor as possible.

If you’re interested in exploring other ways to collect feedback, check out what we’re doing to apply the Net Promoter System℠ (NPS®) in our Listen for Good initiative.

  1. Interpreting Feedback Data

Quantitative feedback data gathered through surveys can be difficult to interpret without more qualitative open-ended comments or other means of interpreting the data. In their first six months of collecting non-anonymous feedback from participants, CEO consistently received very high NPS scores. While high scores made CEO feel good, they wisely questioned whether it was realistic for them to be knocking it out of the park with every participant, and sought to get to the bottom of it. Through focus groups, they asked participants about the consistently high scores. People gave three reasons for the high scores: 1) they genuinely appreciated CEO’s services; 2) they didn’t want to get their job coaches in trouble; and 3) they worried CEO would not place them in a job if they gave low ratings. CEO is now moving toward a confidential system of surveys where participants won’t be individually identified, but staff will access aggregated data and respond to themes.
In another example, New Door Ventures—an organization that provides case management and job training services to at-risk youth—hears consistent feedback from the youth that they want more food. New Door delved deeper into the open-ended responses and determined the youth wanted more meal-replacement food items. Access to meals is a significant issue for their young people and when they come to a workshop, they appreciate having more than just a snack.

In all of these efforts, the feedback is collected in an ongoing, systematic way and the feedback will be benchmarked against data from other sites within each organization and in the case of Listen for Good against a national cohort of organizations by issue area.

  1. Closing the Feedback Loop

Since implementing its feedback system, Chapin Hall, working with the CalYOUTH study of foster youth in California, is learning how to best close the loop with particular segments of its population. They tried using social media to contact foster youth and are finding less success in reaching foster youth who are parents, have mental illness, or are homeless. They are now contacting foster youth through more one-on-one efforts through youth-serving agencies. New Door is providing more meal-replacement types of food (canned soup, ramen noodles) to their youth and making things more “fun” by sponsoring field trips among groups of peers in response to their feedback. In each of these cases, the organization is looking to improve based on feedback and also improve their own feedback collection methods.

These examples are just a few of our very early lessons and we hope you’ve found them informative. We at Fund for Shared Insight are eager to continue learning with and from foundations, nonprofits, and the people we seek to help. We are committed to sharing what we learn together as our nonprofit partners collect ongoing, systematic feedback; act on what they hear; and ultimately improve individuals’ lives.

Does your nonprofit use feedback loops to improve its programs?  What have you learned?

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Melinda Tuan is the project manager at the Fund for Shared Insight.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Fund for Shared Insight, want to get involved, learn about the latest grant opportunities, or have a conversation about feedback loops, please visit www.fundforsharedinsight.org or contact me at melinda@fundforsharedinsight.org.


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