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.

“Make a legal U-turn.” “Exit right in two miles.” When we drive, many of us now have an electronic voice telling us the shortest route, how to avoid detours, and how to correct wrong turns. We’ve recycled our atlases and put our trust in global positioning systems—GPS. The power of GPS is immense. It knows exactly where we are, even when we don’t. Using a process called trilateration, it locates our position via simultaneous signals from four different satellites. Thanks to this precise measurement, overlaid on maps in our digital navigation systems, we’re never lost and can usually travel along a continually updating, optimized route.

So what does this have to do with foundations trying to navigate toward solutions to tough social and environmental problems? Foundations can take almost any course of action, but they don’t always have enough input to choose the best direction and stay on course. The good news is that there are at least four, readily available feedback sources—four signals—that can help them hone in on the most effective approaches for achieving impact. These include feedback from grantees, foundation staff, other funders, and beneficiaries. Taken together, they can help pinpoint where foundations stand.

Feedback from grantees

At the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a nonprofit focusing on the development of data and insight that helps funders improve their performance, we’ve seen progress over the past 17 years on the number of funders that listen to their grantees. Many funders are using third-party mechanisms to capture grantee feedback, and in fact, more than 300 have used CEP’s Grantee Perception Report to collect candid feedback about where grantees think their funders are on course and where they aren’t. What’s more, funders are making changes based on that input. Foundations as varied as the Barr Foundation, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation have all used this kind of feedback to make grant processes more efficient, strengthen relationships, and design new approaches. And because these funders seek this information regularly and share it back with grantees, they’re using it not only to find their way when they’re lost, but also to constantly check that they’re still on the best path. For example, grantees suggested one funder should be more responsive to questions and requests for assistance. The foundation then created internal standards for staff members’ response times, clearly communicated those standards to all grantees, and over time saw grantees’ ratings of responsiveness improve.

And yet, grantee feedback provides just one signal. Funders need more sources of feedback to really understand where they are, but in our experience, they’re not often using them. 

Feedback from beneficiaries

Hearing from the people funders and nonprofits seek to help is another powerful source of input. In fact, when we recently asked foundation CEOs what they saw as the most promising practices to improve foundations’ impact in the coming decade, 69 percent selected learning from beneficiaries’ experiences. More funders chose this than any other practice, including much-discussed practices like impact investing and scaling proven programs.

The process of gathering rigorous feedback from beneficiaries is hard, but there are approaches funders can look to for inspiration. For example, the Fund for Shared Insight, a collaborative of more than a dozen funders, helps nonprofits collect actionable feedback from beneficiaries through its Listen for Good initiative, a funder-subsidized, standardized survey nonprofits deploy to build their own capacity to hear from and use beneficiaries’ feedback. A new collaboration of San Francisco Bay Area funders, working with CEP’s YouthTruth student survey initiative, is partnering with schools and districts to bring students’ perspectives about the quality of their learning environment into their foundation funders learning and planning processes. High Tech High schools, for example, learned that 9th and 10th graders felt much less positively about aspects of college and career readiness than older students, so they worked with across schools to build new programs to address this gap.

Feedback from staff

A third signal can come from regular, confidential staff feedback. Staff have indispensable insight into whether their employer is creating a working environment that engages and empowers them to do their best work. They also have important perspectives on whether or not the foundation’s goals and strategies continue to reflect the needs and developments they observe in the communities in which they work. Furthermore, analysis from funders that have used both CEP’s grantee and staff surveys shows strong connections between the ways that foundations communicate and work internally and the experiences of their grantees. For example, foundations with higher levels of staff empowerment and decision-making authority are more likely to have higher grantee ratings of their clarity and consistency of goals and strategies.

It’s hard for staff members to feel comfortable providing direct feedback to the people who hold their jobs in their hands. To be valuable, staff need the opportunity to share their thoughts anonymously. Funders can solicit this type of feedback using many methods, including anonymized employee surveys, 360 performance review processes, and even Glassdoor, a website on which staff publicly rate and comment on their employer and its leadership. Once they do, they need to act. The consequences of ignoring staff feedback can be profound. Just look at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, whose important work was derailed by a lack of attentiveness to feedback and a lack of seriousness in responding to staff concerns.

Feedback from other funders

Finally, foundations should be getting feedback and input from each other. According to forthcoming CEP research, most foundation CEOs report they have a good sense of what’s working in their efforts. But they have less knowledge of what is and isn’t working in their peers’ work, and, many find it challenging to share their own learning; they feel held back by limited capacity, hesitancy to reveal what’s not working, and real challenges in discerning what lessons are likely to be most relevant to others’ work.

It’s worth finding ways to overcome these challenges to sharing. Our favorite navigation system, Waze, includes information provided by fellow drivers about traffic, obstacles, police activity, and accidents to help others understand what to expect on their journey. That additional layer of shared input and feedback fundamentally supports everything from major course corrections to calls home just to say, “I’ll be late.” Like those helpful fellow drivers, funders sharing their learning can have a powerful multiplier effect, turning a course correction for one organization into potential refinements for many others. While this sharing can be as simple as posting an evaluation to a website, like Wallace Foundation does for its evaluations, funders should also consider opportunities to add to aggregators of evidence-based practices like the Cochrane Collaboration or the What Works Clearinghouse.

Our GPS-funder analogy is imperfect, of course. GPS is a well-tested and precise system. Measuring foundation impact—the thing funders ultimately care about most—is not. And while four sources of foundation feedback are better than one, even taken together, they do not prove impact. So, other sources of data, such as more-traditional evaluations of programmatic efforts, matter too. Education funders need to track test scores and graduation rates; anti-poverty funders need to pay attention to poverty rates and other economic indicators; and climate change funders need to monitor carbon dioxide emissions. Rather than replace these other sources of data or assessment efforts, feedback should complement them.

By gathering and responding to information from all four of these sources, foundations can see the roadblocks ahead, know when to make a U-turn, and ultimately find a more direct path to the important social change we all seek.

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.