The Power of Feedback
The Power of Feedback
In this multimedia series, sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, voices from the social sector will offer tactics, tools, and advice gleaned from the grassroots to encourage nonprofits and foundations to make listening to their constituents—and acting on what they hear—a smart norm for any organization committed to improvement.

Philanthropy today often looks like a race to use the latest shiny object: big bets, impact investing, LLCs, social impact bonds, donor-advised funds, whatever. Many of the new “new ideas” are not actually all that new. Some generate more discussion than action, and none has yet delivered the sector- and world-changing impact its advocates breathlessly promise. Every once in a while, though, an idea emerges that offers a way to genuinely improve how we practice philanthropy. 

Listening to beneficiaries is one such idea. While it has yet to receive the attention it deserves, the movement to seek and use feedback from the people who organizations seek to serve, is rapidly gaining ground. It’s a practice that funders and nonprofits alike should think about embracing. 

The idea that we should listen to the people we seek to help, of course, has antecedents—in community organizing, participatory evaluation, and, more recently, human-centered design. It has a longer pedigree in the for-profit world, and we can easily adapt tools developed in that setting to gather, analyze, and act on feedback for the social sector. 

The case for doing so seems screamingly obvious. How better to learn what works and what doesn’t than to ask those most directly affected? How better to seek out ways to improve? How better to learn about unintended consequences, galvanize demand and support for solutions, and know whether efforts are matching intentions?

"In keeping with the spirit of the series, we hope readers, listeners, and viewers will share their own accounts of how a feedback-gathering method or idea has affected their thinking and practice, using the hashtag #feedbackempowers on Twitter or in the comments areas"

Why, then, has it taken so long for this practice to gain traction, and why is progress still so slow? While the Hewlett Foundation is one of only 300 funders (out of more than 90,000) that regularly use the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report to understand what it is like for our grantees to work with us, only recently have we begun to consider how to get similar feedback from our ultimate beneficiaries. Overall, the practice of listening to beneficiaries is staggeringly rare among nonprofits and grantee organizations—often for lack of resources or knowhow.

Seeing an opportunity to improve the work of the social sector, Hewlett’s Effective Philanthropy Group, which works with our internal program teams and also makes grants to strengthen the philanthropic sector’s practices, set out four years ago to make a change. We adopted a new grantmaking strategy to encourage both funders and nonprofits to listen to beneficiaries, joining seven other funders to launch the collaborative Fund for Shared Insight, which is working build the field of end-user feedback. Shared Insight then introduced the Listen for Good initiative, which matches grants by other funders to help their grantees employ a simple feedback tool. We have, in the meantime, begun making efforts to incorporate beneficiary feedback into our other programs and strategies so that we aren’t preaching things we don’t actually do ourselves.

We know others are undertaking similar efforts. To support learning and idea sharing, and help build a community of practitioners committed to feedback, we are partnering with Stanford Social Innovation Review and Milway Media to co-sponsor this series, “The Power of Feedback.” The series will run through February 2019, and will include videos and podcasts describing the experiences of funders, nonprofits, and beneficiaries who have made the effort to give, receive, and act on feedback. It will include insights from leaders in fields as diverse as criminal justice, public health, philanthropy, and technology, as well as audio-slideshows on feedback tools and tactics.

Readers can also register for the free opening webinar on October 3, featuring Kathy Reich, director of the Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative; Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy; Chris Watler, executive director of the Center for Employment Opportunities; and Susannah Rose, scientific director of research in the Office of Patient Experience at Cleveland Clinic. These leaders will share how incorporating feedback from the people they serve has transformed their organizations’ effectiveness and customer experience.

In keeping with the spirit of the series, we hope readers, listeners, and viewers will share their own accounts of how a feedback-gathering method or idea has affected their thinking and practice, using the hashtag #feedbackempowers on Twitter or in the comments areas.

As for the Hewlett Foundation, I can report that we are making progress and also that we need to do more. Right now, we are considering how best to incorporate beneficiary voices into the process of developing and implementing our program strategies. We revisit these strategies regularly and want to begin soliciting feedback from the ultimate beneficiaries as part of the process. We have a ways to go to make that practice routine, let alone an integral part of our everyday grantmaking, but we are making progress.

Wading in this far—let’s call it ankle-deep—has already provided new insight into why our sector has been slow on the uptake when it comes to seeking and using beneficiary feedback. One problem has to do with how the sector frames the practice: Because people have not practiced collecting and acting on feedback in the past, asking them to do so feels like an add-on—a new and additional requirement on top of their “normal” job. They feel their organizations are asking them to do something that is not only complicated and time-consuming, but also exceptional.

Gathering and using beneficiary feedback should not be exceptional. It should not be seen as yet another task in addition to one’s “real” work; rather, we should see it as an integral part of that work. In other words, what we need is a culture shift. We need to change the norm so that not collecting and using feedback becomes the exception. Listening to beneficiaries should be part and parcel of any initiative that seeks to help others.

This article is part of a series that was produced for Stanford Social Innovation Review by Milway Media with the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.