How more nonprofits and funders are tuning into feedback from voices least heard—their customers

At the opening plenary session of the 2018 Shared Insight Gathering in Houston, clients, staff, and a funder of ECHOS, a Houston social services organization, discuss the transformative power of feedback in a conversation moderated by Lissette Rodriguez (far right) of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Photo credit: Emma Marie Chiang and Martin Peter Bustamante.

When Spins Ngugi Wamaitha counsels teens and young adults about sexual health and contraception in his native Kenya, the 20-year-old thinks of his kid sister Sarah, who’s three. For the past two years, Ngugi Wamaitha has been among a band of youths trying to enlighten peers and younger teens that the cultural stigma against contraception in this East African country is harming their futures.

“I don’t want my sister to end up in a bad situation where she would end up pregnant,” he said. “Thinking about that really encouraged me.”

Young mobilizers like Ngugi Wamaitha who can relate to peers in their community are the “glue” that ties together Future Fab, an innovative program coordinated by the London-based nonprofit Marie Stopes International aimed at improving reproductive health services in Kenya, said Anne Parker, the nonprofit’s global marketing advisor. The organization’s reliance on young mobilizers in its development of Future Fab as a “lifestyle” brand rather than a clinical health program came in response to feedback from a critical audience: the young Kenyans that Marie Stopes International aims to serve.

“The girls kept saying make the message relevant to their life,” Parker said. She described the feedback gathered by Marie Stopes International and the nonprofit design firm in a partnership supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. “It was just not good enough to expect girls to show up to clinics. We kept changing the model to a model that worked… We just started doing what girls said they wanted. That sounds extremely obvious, but it doesn’t really happen in public health.”

More often, the users of public health services “get what they’re given,” she said. “The difference is, we stopped and listened to what girls wanted. They’ve just been so important in creating this program.”

Eighteen-year-old Maleen Atieno Gunga of Nairobi is just one of many youths the Marie Stopes contraception dialogue has reached. Although Gunga said she had always been told contraception was a subject “only older people should be talking about,” she’s been inspired to encourage her peers to get involved with the Marie Stopes efforts.

This kind of feedback loop is just one example of a growing trend in the social sector: a more consistent effort to try to listen to the “customers” of nonprofits—the end users, or beneficiaries, of services and programs. Just as technology and new tools have made it easy for business owners to see customer reviews on everything from cars to restaurants, foundations and nonprofits are beginning to turn to user feedback as well. These initial efforts are making a statement about the future of philanthropy that revolves around listening to the voices of those being served.

“Listening is a way for funders to have more impact and better understand the problems by talking to the beneficiaries. That feedback is very important for effective philanthropy,” said David Callahan, editor of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based news website Inside Philanthropy, which he founded in 2014. However, the idea is “still an outlier trend,” he said. “It is an attempt to change how things are done. Most foundations still operate in more traditional ways.”

Are Funders Ready to Listen?

“The practice of listening to beneficiaries is staggeringly rare among nonprofits and grantee organizations—often for lack of resources or knowhow,” writes Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, in Stanford Social Innovation Review, a magazine and website for the social sector. With Hewlett support, the magazine has launched a new series on The Power of Feedback, which aims to bridge theory and practice, offering tools and advice from more than a dozen nonprofit, business, and philanthropic leaders who are part of this growing movement. Of the foundation’s own efforts, Kramer writes, “We have a ways to go to make that practice routine, let alone an integral part of our everyday grantmaking, but we are making progress.”

Margot Fahnestock, who ended her eight-year term as a program officer at the foundation earlier this year, suggests how human-centered-design approaches can benefit global development and population efforts by incorporating client voices. In providing support for the partnership between Marie Stopes International and IDEO, Fahnestock said the focus was gaining “simple insights from the teenagers themselves.”

“It was a very intentional co-creation with teenagers themselves about the experiences they would like,” she said. The result is a program that has created a safe environment for teen girls and boys to talk about their futures and learn why avoiding pregnancy at this time in their lives is a critical move—an important step for making progress toward the ultimate goal: lowering the high rate of teen pregnancy in Kenya and empowering women to choose whether and when to start families. There are now 22 centers located in Kenya’s urban areas, which are hubs for activities and events where these young mobilizers facilitate important conversations about sexual health, including testing for sexually transmitted infections and HIV. In 2017 alone, Future Fab provided services to 25,500 adolescents, including boys.

We felt it was essential to hear directly from people working to sustain Western communities and conserve their environment—the goal of our grantmaking.

Andrea Keller Helsel, Environment Program Officer

Other programs at the Hewlett Foundation are also attempting to draw in more user feedback. Andrea Keller Helsel, who leads efforts around Western conservation in the foundation’s environment program, has been gathering feedback from those who live in the rural West as part of the foundation’s process of reviewing its previous five years of grantmaking and looking ahead.

“We felt it was essential to hear directly from people working to sustain Western communities and conserve their environment—the goal of our grantmaking,” Helsel said, describing the process. “We formally interviewed and convened people, rode in trucks and ate together with tribal members, ranchers and landowners, sportsmen and sportswomen, scientists and other Westerners.”

She stresses that their candor was a critical ingredient in developing the foundation’s refreshed grantmaking strategy. “These conversations continue to open our eyes to new opportunities; they help us build bridges in our work.”

The updated approach includes a core strategic imperative to continue listening throughout the five-year period; Helsel and her colleagues are planning community visits, convenings, and grantee “roadshows.”

Hewlett is also a founder and core funder of the Fund for Shared Insight, a collaborative launched in 2013 that pools financial and other resources for grants to improve philanthropy. More than 200 nonprofits, with backing from nearly 100 funders, have participated in Listen for Good, the Fund for Shared Insight’s signature effort that enables organizations and their donors to build high-quality feedback loops. This client feedback engages customers at food banks, employment programs, and more. Since 2016, more than $9.4 million in Listen for Good grants have been awarded, elevating the voices of more than 90,000 clients nationwide.

Fay Twersky, co-chair of the Fund for Shared Insight and director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group, said feedback “is really hitting home in the philanthropy space.”

“People across the foundation world need to do a better job of understanding and listening to people and community,” she said. “The best solutions to some of the intractable problems we’re seeking to solve may come from those most affected.”

For the watchdog group National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., advocating for philanthropy responsive to the people and communities they serve is a basic tenet, said Lisa Ranghelli, senior director of assessment and special projects.

“We really want foundations to think more extensively about where in their work is an opportunity for constituent input at the front end and not just at the back end,” she said. “A lot of foundations want to engage more directly with the communities they seek to help, but aren’t sure how to go about it.”

Technology offers one approach to gain feedback. The time and cost of surveys can shrink from a lengthy process that could have cost $100,000 to something that could take a week and be produced at a fraction of that amount, said Roy Steiner, a global development expert at The Rockefeller Foundation and former director, intellectual capital for Omidyar Network.

Despite support for the concept, Steiner acknowledges there’s also resistance. “Feedback is hard sometimes,” he said. “We all say we want it, but we also have sensitive egos and it’s hard to hear things that say we could be doing better. It’s very natural for people not to embrace it, even though it’s absolutely essential to becoming better.”

Nonprofits Are Turning Feedback into Action

At a breakout activity at the 2018 Shared Insight Gathering, participants discussed strategies for collecting feedback. To date, more than 200 nonprofits have participated in “Listen for Good,” the Fund for Shared Insight’s signature effort that enables organizations and their donors to build high-quality feedback loops. Photo credit: Emma Marie Chiang and Martin Peter Bustamante.

Twersky said nonprofits are convinced: “They’re thrilled with the idea of doing more systematic feedback and having a more reliable system for understanding what clients, customers, and participants are wanting.”

For example, feedback from their clients—men and women recently released from incarceration—led the New York City-based Center for Employment Opportunities to make a simple schedule change more in line with the job needs of those trying to turn their lives around, said Brad Dudding, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer. Rather than the 7 a.m. start for daily job orientation meetings, the feedback, gathered as part of a Fund for Shared Insight grant, led to a one-hour delay in meeting start time, giving participants more time in the morning to spend with family, take public transportation or check in with authorities.

Getting and using feedback from clients is part of being more inclusive and reflects wider trends in philanthropy, Dudding said. “We’re not doing this to people. They’re doing it for themselves and we’re helping them. This mindset is starting to take hold.”

A just-released evaluation of the Listen for Good initiative (conducted by the Seattle-based measurement organization ORS Impact) finds that nearly eight out of 10 organizations took some kind of action, with 63 percent making changes to program offerings, 45 percent making changes to operations, and 37 percent making changes to staff-client interactions. Almost one-third now offer new services based upon feedback collected.

Many of these organizations were among the 160 nonprofit partners and 30 funding groups that gathered for a three day Fund for Shared Insight event this spring in Houston to share experiences and expertise about using feedback loops. Among the speakers was Melissa Rivera, an evaluation consultant with Habitat for Humanity International, which implemented a pilot program using feedback for projects at a dozen neighborhoods across the country. One such Habitat project in Valdosta, Ga. used a $10,000 grant to gather resident priorities and input that led to the cleanup and rejuvenation of a neighborhood park, including the creation of new educational activities. Molly Ferrier, executive director at Valdosta-Lowndes County Habitat, said neighborhood residents “were eager to give feedback.”

Although the pilot program ended in January, Rivera said the feedback process continues to be powerful. “The intention was always for residents to prioritize what they wanted in their neighborhood,” she said.

Another Listen for Good grantee, the Nurse-Family Partnership of Denver, Colo., arranges nurse visits to low-income, first-time mothers during pregnancy and through two years after the birth to improve maternal health, child health and economic security.

“The relationship between the nurse and mom is the secret sauce,” said Benny Samuels, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer. “After two years and the relationship ends, the mothers don’t want to end the relationship with the nurse.”

A secondary effect, Samuels adds, is that the program stimulated mom-to-mom connections.

“Mothers have told us what they really want is to build a community among themselves and be able to support each other,” she said.

Although the grant ended last year, Samuels said the feedback continues. “We did something tactically, but it had implications organizationally and strategically,” she said. “Translating that operationally into program improvements is a different thing. That’s what is happening now.”

The status quo is difficult to alter; yet a 2016 report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective from the nonprofit Center for Effective Philanthropy indicates that real change is ahead. The report, commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation in conjunction with its 50th anniversary, gauged the views of more than 200 CEOs who represent the largest U.S. foundations. More than two-thirds surveyed said they believe “foundations seeking to learn from the experiences of those they are ultimately trying to help” and “foundations seeking to learn from the knowledge or experiences of grantees” are the most promising practices that will increase funder impact in the future.

Kramer, the Hewlett Foundation’s president, is hopeful that the growing movement will eventually become a norm. “What we need is a culture shift,” he said. “Listening to beneficiaries should be part and parcel of any initiative that seeks to help others.”

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