A Call to Action for Funders: Listen, Reflect, and Learn

Every September and October, I spend a lot of time in synagogue. The Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of intense reflection for Jews about where we’ve fallen short as human beings, and how we can lead more ethical, fulfilling lives in the next year. One common theme I’ve heard throughout this holiday season is the need for all people to become better listeners. We need to do less talking, e-mailing, tweeting, and texting, and spend more time really listening to what others are telling us. Most importantly, we need to take what we learn into account as we decide how to act.

This is a lesson that applies not just in our personal lives, but in our professional lives as well. That’s why I hope you’ll make time to read and reflect on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s new report, Hearing from Those We Seek to Help: Nonprofit Practices and Perspectives in Beneficiary Feedback.

“Beneficiary feedback” is a mouthful, but basically, it means that nonprofits and foundations should listen to, learn from, and act upon what we hear from the people we seek to help—whether they are residents of a homeless shelter, students in a high school, or young women seeking reproductive health care in African villages. It means setting up thoughtful, real-time feedback loops in the nonprofit sector, to continually improve our processes and our outcomes.

CEP’s report is the best I’ve read so far on how much nonprofits collect and use beneficiary feedback, and why they think foundations need to do a much better job of listening to those they seek to help. With the support of rigorous data and rich stories, CEP makes a powerful case for increased foundation investment in—and use of—beneficiary feedback.

In particular, three of CEP’s findings resonated with me:

  • Most of the 235 nonprofits that CEP surveyed already collect and use this type of feedback. But many worry that they don’t do it well enough or often enough. They speak of the need for better staff training, better tools, and more time to process and act upon what they hear.
  • Less than half of the nonprofits collecting beneficiary feedback report that foundations support them in this practice, either with monetary or non-monetary support.
  • Non-profits think the majority of their funders don’t adequately understand their intended beneficiaries’ needs. So, even though nonprofits are working hard to collect beneficiary feedback and adjust their strategies and programs accordingly, the feedback apparently isn’t being heard inside foundations.

A group of seven funders wants to change this. Launched last month, the Fund for Shared Insight is a multi-year pooled fund that will provide grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results; foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and share what we learn.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, along with our colleagues from the Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, LiquidNet for Good, the Rita Allen Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, are the initial contributors to Shared Insight. We opened our first $5.5 million funding round in early September, and received close to 200 proposals by the Oct. 15 deadline. We hope that other foundations will join this pooled fund for future rounds.

At the Packard Foundation, we’re also launching our own experiment in partnering with nonprofits to collect and use feedback from those we seek to help. A grant we just made to Keystone Accountability will enable them to work with a key grantee of the Foundation to develop a comprehensive, rigorous beneficiary feedback system, which the grantee can operate themselves. Keystone will be evaluating the project and sharing what we all learn through a published case study. Hopefully, this is just the start of the Packard Foundation’s commitment to thoughtful use of feedback loops, both among our grantees and in our own grantmaking.

In the coming year, please let me know what you think of Shared Insight, and of the Packard Foundation’s own efforts to truly listen to the people we seek to help. As I strive to become a better listener, in work and in life, I hope you’ll give me candid and real-time feedback. I’m all ears.

Kathy Reich is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. She tweets at @kdreich.

beneficiary feedback, beneficiary perceptions, effective philanthropy, foundation transparency, funder/grantee relationships, leadership, nonprofit sector, research
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