Nate Mandel January 25, 2017

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At nonprofit organizations, communication is often at the crux of the services being offered. Nonprofit workers often aim to help those who participate in their program by advising, coaching, and questioning. They provide a lot of information – but often that information only travels one way – from the expert to the person they are trying to help. But there is immense power in information flowing the other way as well, from program users or ‘beneficiaries’ to the staff providing help. What we need is information flowing both ways – a true back-and-forth conversation between those we seek to help and those doing the helping.

At the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), we realized we needed to enter into conversation with our clients to complete a missing component of our service delivery model, which focuses heavily on providing feedback to participants to help them enter the workforce. We started by imbuing our daily job coaching and development service model with Motivational Interviewing techniques. Staff are trained to ask open-ended questions and clarify responses in ways that let participants take the wheel of their own job search journey. Motivational Interviewing helps shift the focus away from providers acting as experts and evens the playing field between participants and staff. Ending case conferences by asking participants for feedback is a natural complement to this process. How have we done? What could we be doing better? If you could change one thing about CEO, what would it be?

Talking about feedback loops can sometimes feel intimidating or like it would be an awkward practice to put in place. But all we’re really talking about is inviting people into conversation. And a focus on conversations doesn’t mean there’s no role for expert opinion or advice – at CEO our staff still offer coaching and evaluative feedback to participants.

Conversation really means balancing the voices of experts and clients, so that neither dominates and both can come together to seek out the best outcomes for program participants.

If we think about feedback as a simple invitation to a conversation, it might help the way organizations and service providers conceptualize their feedback-seeking behaviors. Rather than creating another check-box activity, a feedback culture can be driven by an informal but regular commitment to inviting program participants to reflect. Project administrators can then develop easy ways to record and analyze the data, but the “ask” from staff need not be burdensome. In fact, feedback-seeking behavior has been correlated with higher employee job satisfaction and performance, so it is in everyone’s best interest to try!

At CEO, a focus on conversation has already begun to transform the way we work. Our NYC lobby now emanates an openness to participant perspectives. From the TV screen displaying feedback results (what we’ve heard and how we’ve responded) to an anonymous tablet survey, to paper handouts we created based directly on participant suggestions, we’ve attempted to engage in a power-sharing process with participants. They are ultimately the driving force behind their own success. Encouraging conversation simply reinforces that willingness to engage on equal grounds and move forward as a team.

Nate Mandel is the Program Innovation Analyst at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO). Nate manages Constituent Voice at CEO, a national effort to systematically collect feedback from program participants. Nate holds a B.A. in Sociology from Vassar College and is interested in the intersection between technology, data, and social justice.

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