“Which part of the Spark process has been the most beneficial?” I asked a mother in the Waroco Paco village in northern Uganda after a community meeting. She responded, “The government advocacy training. We now know how to approach our officials and ask them for what we need.” A year later, Waroco Paco has received support from their government to build a community school and construct a road to improve access to the school.
I visited Waroco Paco as part of my work with Spark MicroGrants. Spark supports remote villages to design and launch their own social impact projects through six months of facilitated community meetings and a seed grant.
This mother’s feedback resonates with me. As we begin to scale, I find myself more intent to propel Spark’s government engagement in Uganda. The utility of it begs the questions of:
- How do we build strong feedback loops – from community partners back to our team – which ensure our work is constantly improving and best serving our community partners?
- How are we supporting our partner villages to build internal feedback loops to self-improve?
- What type of feedback should donors request to strengthen their funding’s impact?
Over the course of developing Spark MicroGrants in its almost six years of operations, we have routinely asked for feedback from our community partners—during, and after each community engagement—and it shows. Our facilitation process was born out of conversations with local community groups, government officials, and university students and launched as a three-month project planning process. Today it is a six-month village strengthening process that we call the Facilitated Collective Action Process.
Community Feedback Loops
Our organization is successful because we pilot our programs, gain feedback and iterate in response—and we don’t want that cycle to stop. The strongest institutions – whether it is a tech firm, government or NGO – are the ones that change and gain regular feedback from their end users. These are living institutions. In order for Spark to be effective we build gaining regular feedback into how we work, and link it directly to our program design work. As regional and global dynamics inevitably change, so can we.
In order to ensure we are gaining feedback comprehensively across our community partners, we routinely ask for thoughts on the process, through focus group discussions, one on one interviews and surveys. We ask what is most useful and least useful and then incorporate those ideas into program reflection and design. Soon we’ll be sending the questions via text message to members of our community partners so we are able to reach more people on how we are doing.
Internal Feedback Loops
Just as Spark develops with feedback from our community partners, we want to ensure they are also able to build internal feedback systems. This very idea is what the mothers of Waroco Paco were asking for during our visit. They want the tools to effect change in their government. They want the ability to tell government leaders what they need, and hold them accountable to addressing those needs.
This is one reason Spark provides facilitation on top of funding to villages in East Africa. Spark trains facilitators who host weekly meetings where village members, such as families in Waroco Paco, envision their desired future of their village, ideate on project ideas to progress their village and put those ideas into action. These meetings are continued by an in-village facilitator once the village has graduated from the Spark process.
Donor Feedback Loops
Finally, we share the initial community feedback back with donors to increase accountability to the end user. Impact-driven organizations often find themselves in a perverse cycle of accountability to donors instead of accountability to their end users. We have the opportunity to shift primary accountability to the end user.
Donors who are leading this conversation role model great mechanisms for feedback. One of our partners, the Peery Foundation, offers a short feedback survey after engagement with their grantees. Peery’s team, from managing director to program associate, embody this spirit by actively creating space for honest conversations with their partners.
Ensuring strong feedback loops – from end users to organizations to donors – supports a growing shift from traditional, prescriptive development. Feedback loops flip the paradigm from development programs that are solely accountable to the donors to be community-driven programs that start with the end user.
At Spark we ask ourselves to be accountable to our end users, the families who attend our facilitated meetings in East Africa, and we invite our donors to ask this of us as well. After all, the mothers of Waroco Paco have the right to control their destiny and they are the best equipped to help us do our job well in supporting them in their journey.
Want to start getting feedback? Check out the funder feedback form here.
Sasha Fisher moved to East Africa in July 2010 and founded Spark MicroGrants to enable remote villages facing poverty to be in control of their own development. Spark has since supported 139 villages across four countries to design and launch their own social impact projects. Sasha holds a BA from the University of Vermont in Studio Art and a self-designed major of Human Security, a paradigm for development that recognizes the rising legitimacy of non-state actors in securing basic human needs.