Published on 10/27/14, crossposted from The Center for Effective Philanthropy
tin can telephone

What do people actually want?
Are they getting it?
If not, then what should we do differently?

These are the three questions that should be at the center of any funder’s strategy and operations. Yet they are far from the radar screen of many funders and implementing organizations, both domestic and international. Feedback Labs, with founding members Keystone AccountabilityGlobalGivingDevelopment GatewayAshokaFrontline SMSTwaweza,Ushahidi, and GroundTruth, are committed to helping funders find out and act on the answers to these questions.

Working closely with new members and key actors in the philanthropic ecosystem such as Charity NavigatorLIFTGlobal IntegrityIntegrity ActionCDA, and How Matters, Feedback Labs is trying to create a new culture that recognizes that collecting and responding to feedback from the people we are trying to help is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. It is the right thing to do because, just like in a democracy, the people themselves should be sovereign. It is the smart thing to do because numerous cases show that properly designed and executed feedback loops improve outcomes.

The new CEP report out on beneficiary voice provides ground for optimism, and also points to clear challenges and opportunities for the feedback community. The optimism derives from the fact that 95% of nonprofits responding in the survey assert that they collect feedback during service delivery. To collect is one thing, but to do something about what you hear is another. Here the signal is also encouraging since 61% of non-profit organizations say they use feedback to a “great” or “extreme” extent.

But the CEP report is based on self-reporting from the nonprofits, so to get a more complete picture of the extent and quality of feedback practices we looked for corroborative evidence. It is hard to find. The evidence that we did find points more to the challenges in current practice – and also to the opportunity to make rapid progress.

Charity Navigator’s newest rating criteria – which assess charities on their results reporting – provide the first large-scale external review of nonprofit feedback practices. After reviewing 1,250 charities, Charity Navigator has found that less than 7 percent publish beneficiary feedback of any kind, and only a fraction of this 7 percent provide evidence to suggest how representative that feedback may be.

So, given this mixed picture, how far along are we on the road to effective feedback loops for social change? The CEP report confirms that we are making good progress on at least one of the three ingredients required to spur adoption of a new performance management norm like effective feedback loops – awareness. Clearly nonprofits are aware that this is something they would benefit from doing.

The CEP report also tells us something important and actionable about the other two necessary ingredients – incentivesand tools – namely, most funders are not yet playing their part.

Only rarely do funders ask, “What do the people you are trying to help actually think about what you are doing?” Participants in the CEP study say that funders rarely provide the resources to find the answer. Nor do funders seem to care whether or not grantees are changing behavior and programs in response to how the ultimate beneficiaries respond.

We do see some grounds for hope that incentives are about to change. Some major actors shaping funding decisions have already thrown down the feedback gauntlet. As noted earlier, Feedback Labs member Charity Navigator is now applying its new “Results Reporting” rating criteria, which include six data points regarding charities feedback practices. The new ratings will be factored into Charity Navigator star ratings from 2016. The World Bank president has decreed that the bank will require robust feedback from beneficiaries on all projects for which there is an identifiable beneficiary. The Hewlett, Ford, Packard, Rita Allen, Kellogg, JPB and LiquidNet for Good foundations have recently come together to create the Fund for Shared Insight to try to catalyze a new feedback culture within the philanthropy sector.

As incentives from rating agencies and funders get phased in, the binding constraint will increasingly be know-how and tools. Even if organizations are aware of the need to use feedback loops and have the incentives to do so, the actual value of feedback efforts will turn on their quality. Advances in technology, combined with tried and true low-tech solutions such as community meetings, are increasingly enabling us to listen and respond effectively to community views at low cost. The US anti-poverty organization, LIFT, for example has developed a rigorous feedback practice that involves asking two questions after every interaction it has with its service recipients. The information collected and subsequent follow through investigations is yielding transformative insight that is unleashing a new wave of creativity in an already path-breaking organization.

Over the past few years, Keystone Accountability has developed the Constituent Voice methodology for social change organizations like LIFT to manage their performance through systematically collecting feedback from those intended to benefit – their primary constituents – and using it to foster open learning dialogue leading to mutual understanding and agreed action for improvement. Until know Keystone has provided advice and written resources to support Constituent Voice practice, but in January 2015 it is launching an online feedback data sharing platform called the Feedback Commons that will enable any organization that wishes to create high quality feedback systems to do so easily and inexpensively. Among other things, the Commons will enable any organization to compare the feedback that it collects with the feedback of other like organizations.

GlobalGiving is combining both incentives and tools on its funding platform, with the introduction of its new Effectiveness Dashboard, which gives extra points to organizations that use information and data to improve their performance. Those points, in turn, determine the organization’s access to funding channels on the GlobalGiving platform – thus creating a virtuous cycle between funding and effectiveness. GlobalGiving makes available a variety of tools to partner organizations including the DIY toolkit and the Feedback Store (developed in collaboration with the World Bank). More tools and integrations are in the offing, including with the Feedback Commons (being developed by Keystone). GlobalGiving’s goal is to amplify the impact of good organizations as it grows rapidly from its current level of $150 million in funding to 10,000 projects in 160 countries.

Challenges remain, but much progress is being made. Given the recent increase in awareness, incentives and tools for effective feedback, we could be on the verge of a democratic revolution in aid and philanthropy. The success of that revolution will depend on the degree to key actors in the philanthropy and aid fields work together to bring about a new culture that always asks: What do people want? Are they getting it? If not, then what?

Dennis Whittle is co-founder of Feedback Labs and GlobalGiving. David Bonbright is co-founder and chief executive of Keystone Accountability.

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