Guest Posts

Valerie Threlfall and June Wang | March 16, 2020

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“It means a lot that you want to know what we have to say. It shows you care.”


“Having an organization say ‘we hear several of you want X and we are doing Y’ is unlike any organization I have ever heard of.”


Reactions like these demonstrate one of the most important reasons to close the loop when nonprofit service providers ask their clients for feedback: it is a distinctive, fundamental sign of respect and a critical building block for establishing trust. 


While “closing the loop” can be a catchall term for anything having to do with getting back to someone, we at Listen4Good, Fund for Shared Insight’s signature feedback initiative, use a more deliberate definition. For us, closing the loop specifically means organizations sharing back with clients what they heard and stating what they are doing about the feedback received. While this may feel like a relatively small step, closing the loop in a thoughtful and purposeful way is a critical differentiator from what most nonprofits, and frankly most organizations, do today.


Indeed, a recent analysis of nonprofit practices captured by How We Listen, a feedback self-assessment launched last year on Candid (formerly GuideStar), shows where the field is. Only 55% of the more than 1,600 nonprofits that took the self-assessment closed the loop with clients. This lack of communication means that at many organizations, clients never know whether their feedback was reviewed or considered, let alone acted upon.


In light of this communication gap, people providing feedback are often cynical, and rightfully so, about whether their voice will be taken seriously. “What’s the point in giving feedback?  Nothing will change” can be a common sentiment. Closing the loop breaks this pattern and demonstrates that it is worth speaking up and that speaking up will lead to change. It can also strengthen the relationship between service providers and clients and engender more honest, candid, and thus helpful client feedback over time. For these reasons, closing the loop is the capstone step in the five-step feedback process that we support organizations to complete through Listen4Good.


When we explain the concept of closing the loop to Listen4Good organizations, a light bulb often goes off and they quickly understand how closing the loop honors client voice. However, even among the organizations we work with, building the habit can still be a struggle.


Why aren’t organizations doing it more? We see a handful of common challenges:


  1. Organizations that have worked hard through the feedback process often get to the final, close-the-loop step and naturally lose some momentum.
  2. Organizations may not have strong communications capacity.  Sharing engaging, bite-size information with visuals or other compelling elements may not be easy or intuitive.
  3. Organizations that take a while to act on feedback may feel it’s too late to close the loop. Instead of making it appear like it’s an afterthought, they may be tempted to drop the step altogether.
  4. Finally, organizations that are unable to act on feedback (usually due to limited resources or other objective constraints) may be reticent to report back to clients what might look like a lack of responsiveness.


Our advice to organizations that are struggling to figure out how to close the loop is first and foremost: Just do it! What’s most important is that the step is not neglected. If it was important enough to gather their feedback in the first place, it’s just as important to follow up. Close the loop out of respect for your clients! 

Here are some recommendations to get you closing your feedback loops:


  • Start with the end in mind.  Imagine how and what you will share back with clients even as you are designing your feedback process. What do you hope to be able to say to them and how? Knowing that you will be accountable for sharing feedback results back to clients will help you ask more actionable questions and hopefully get your creative juices flowing up front.


  • Stick to the idea that less is more. When sharing feedback results, organizations tend to say too much. They can be eager to share lots of numbers and percentages. Instead, boil it down to the basics. Focus on a few key takeaways that can be summarized in a sentence each. Better that clients remember at least one thing than drown in too much information.


  • Be creative.  Organizations should expect to experiment with the communication methods they use to close the loop and figure out which one resonates with clients. We know from experience you will likely have to try multiple approaches to get it right.


  • Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.  If a few months have passed since you asked clients for feedback and you haven’t yet closed the loop, you’re likely taking too long. You don’t need to respond to every piece of feedback. What’s important is that you act on what you can and communicate where you’re at with clients, even if it’s a plan that has not yet been executed. And if you can’t or won’t be making changes at all, pointing out the realities of your constraints will demonstrate that you listened. 


Through Listen4Good, we provide lots of tools and examples for how to close the loop, and customized coaching support to help organizations weave their messages together. You can find stories from organizations like Natividad Foundation and Social Advocates for Youth on the Shared Insight website. In a forthcoming post, our colleague Nate Mandel, a Listen4Good feedback coach, will share examples where organizations have successfully closed the loop in creative, thoughtful ways that are grounded in the realities of their context. 


Do you have a story of your own about when you successfully (or unsuccessfully) closed the loop?  Let us know in the comments here and engage with us on social media using the hashtag, #CloseTheFeedbackLoop.

Valerie Threlfall
Valerie is managing director of Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen4Good. She is an independent consultant focused on strategy development and performance measurement design for nonprofit organizations. She is founder and principal at Ekouté, a firm built on her leadership in the feedback space.

June Wang
June is a senior portfolio manager and coach for Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen4Good. An independent consultant, she works to improve organizational processes, facilitate learning, and implement measurement systems for nonprofits and foundations. Prior to consulting, she served as the organizational learning officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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