Carlos Mercado, Feedback Labs | June 1st, 2022
As an industrial engineer, I was pretty familiar with the term feedback loop when I joined Feedback Labs earlier this year. To me, feedback was processed from a system where the outputs are used as inputs to correct or improve future operations. While working toward my major, every time I studied and analyzed a feedback loop, it was related to manufacturing processes or systems dynamics where the input from the feedback is frequently easy to obtain or even automatic. For example, I once built a model to understand how we could reduce food waste in an industrial kitchen through Winnow, an innovative food reduction process. The ‘feedback’ we wanted to track was how much food waste the kitchen was producing over time, and we wanted to use that feedback to adjust the model. As engineers, it was pretty easy to collect feedback – we added a few lines of code to our program and were able to show how the innovative food reduction process we were testing kept food waste under control. At the end, we managed to prove how Winnow can be a solution to food waste if it is implemented in major restaurants all around the world. With it, the rate of increase in food waste reduced drastically as the algorithm learned, until it reached zero. This example is a clear representation of how the whole feedback process is fully automated in engineering and therefore once it is implemented, the next steps are fairly simple.
As you can see, this definition of a feedback loop is a very technical one. Feedback Labs is also trying to make feedback loops the norm across nonprofits and foundations, but I find the feedback loops we work on way more complex and interesting. As previously mentioned, the feedback loops I’ve worked with are mostly automated. In the world of aid, philanthropy, nonprofits, and government, feedback loops are completely different. For instance, there is no such thing as an automatic mechanism to retrieve the feedback from the people who are using a service or product. Also, the analysis of the qualitative feedback data is not as straightforward as it is in engineering. Most of the time we first need to categorize the responses we hear from people at the heart of our work and provide meaning through patterns and themes in order to gain insights on how to improve our services. Finally, closing the loop, which is the most important step to make when implementing a feedback loop, is more challenging in nonprofits. We have to reach clients and find effective ways to tell them what we heard from their feedback and what we did about it. That’s a lot harder than putting a sensor into a mechanical system!
Seeing these major differences between the relatively straightforward feedback loops of engineering and the more complex loops in nonprofits at the beginning of my internship made me really understand the hard work that Feedback Labs is currently doing. As their strategy intern, I’ve come to realize that Feedback Labs has managed to spread the word about feedback loops to thousands of nonprofits that are now applying this process in their work. Yet, I also know that Feedback labs wants to make it so that every nonprofit listens and responds to feedback. To do that, we need to know what nonprofits have high-quality feedback loops and what nonprofits need help or encouragement to improve how they listen. So how can we find a way to discern the quality of feedback loops?
Discerning the quality of nonprofit feedback loops is a complicated question. For instance, we are conscious of the amount of work nonprofits currently have and therefore if we try and implement a system to discern the quality of their feedback processes, it should not be a burden to them. We also need to find a way of discerning if nonprofits are comfortable being candid with details about their feedback process. Lastly, we need to make clear that the purpose of discerning the quality of nonprofit listening is to improve how nonprofits are listening instead of just rating them.
Here are three insights from my experiences as an engineer that I think we should keep in mind when figuring out how to discern the quality of nonprofit listening:
- Standardization can be useful. As an industrial engineer, whenever we want to find a way to improve a process and make it more efficient, the first step is to standardize it. Once it is standardized, we can now focus on finding aspects of the process that can be easily measured to determine its performance and have a way of discerning the actual quality of the process. That’s why I think it’s important that we focus on spreading standard definitions of what high-quality feedback loops look like, using tools like the Core Principles of Constituent Feedback. Creating standards for nonprofit listening might be more challenging than standardizing a manufacturing process. But once achieved, it will facilitate our ability to discern the quality of any nonprofit’s feedback process.
- We should focus on helping nonprofits. I believe that we should emphasize that the purpose of us creating a rating system in which we are able to determine if a nonprofit is listening well or not is to improve their practices and not penalize nonprofits with a bad rating. For instance, when we standardize a manufacturing process in a plant, our intention is not to blame the manufacturing director or the workers there, but to improve the process and eventually become a more efficient and profitable plant. This is why our rating should celebrate improvement. And rather than only rating the quality of nonprofit listening, we also need to support nonprofits to get to the next level of listening and eventually become an expert in feedback loops.
- Collaboration is important. Throughout this internship, I’ve come to realize that not only Feedback Labs is interested and excited about making feedback the norm across nonprofits and funders. Funders and philanthropy support organizations are working hard in collaboration with Feedback Labs to push forward feedback loops and solve any emerging challenges. The Feedback+Jacksonville summit was a great example on how these organizations are really interested in and looking forward to improving the feedback loop field. I truly believe that these collaborations are essential for helping Feedback Labs figure out how to discern the quality of feedback loops and further strengthen the feedback field.
It is clear that the feedback loops that Feedback Labs is trying to make the norm in aid, philanthropy, nonprofits, and government are way more complex than the ones I use in engineering. I really find this extremely interesting, and I am excited to continue to work in Feedback Labs and be a part of the next steps that are being done to improve the field. I’m now a hundred percent convinced that feedback loops are extremely necessary in nonprofits in order to shift the power to the communities at the heart of our work.
Carlos Mercado was the Strategy Intern at Feedback Labs. He is responsible for helping Feedback Labs collaborators to encourage organizations to do a better job of listening and responding to feedback. He will collaborate with leaders in the field to scale rewards for organizations that have feedback practices.
Prior to Feedback Labs, Carlos worked as a social service participant at “Líderes Ciudadanos”, where he implemented mentorship courses for students at a public junior high school located in Monterrey, Mexico about the culture of legality. He has also been the founder and organizer of the social project “Matemáticas Divertidas” where he implemented an innovative math course for students from 10 to 12 years at a low-income public school in order to boost students’ mathematical skills.
Carlos attended Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey majoring Industrial Engineering with a minor in Systems Engineering. There, he developed important skills, such as problem solving and collaboration.