Appreciating an Underdeveloped Source of Insight

Amidst a flurry of recent talk about the opportunities and challenges presented by the application of “big data” in philanthropy, one aspect of the conversation that is often overlooked is beneficiary feedback. Yet, with a growing body of research that demonstrates a link between beneficiary perceptions and outcomes, there is both a moral and an effectiveness argument to be made for listening to those we seek to help.

In an article out today in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Listening to Those Who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries, lead author and CEP Advisory Board member Fay Twersky makes a compelling case for why collecting beneficiary feedback “isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.”

Along with co-authors Phil Buchanan and Val Threlfall of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Twersky describes how this underdeveloped source of information has already aided improved practice and better outcomes in both the education and healthcare sectors. Providers in these fields who systematically and rigorously collect beneficiary feedback and place it in a comparative context have used this valuable tool to inform decision-making—and improve results.

For example, the YouthTruth survey—an initiative of CEP—has spurred significant change for participating educators. As one school principal explained,

“When we started this process, we thought this was just going to be another district-run survey. We have never been able to use the data we have received in the past from our student surveys…. I didn’t realize YouthTruth would be so action-oriented. This data is incredibly helpful.”

In healthcare, a field even further along in its utilization of beneficiary perceptions, well-developed systems for data collection have allowed hospital effectiveness to be compared locally, regionally, and even nationally, driving improved patient experiences.

The authors fully acknowledge the many obstacles standing in the way of obtaining high-quality feedback data—it’s expensive, it’s difficult to collect, it makes us feel uncomfortable, and it often lacks proper incentives to encourage the honest participation of beneficiaries. Furthermore, the examples of education and healthcare enjoy particular advantages that have likely allowed them to more easily achieve success than would be possible in other fields within the nonprofit sector. Still, Twersky, Buchanan, and Threlfall call attention to initiatives already underway around the world that have shown promising early returns. And they believe that “there is likely to be a relationship between the degree of difficulty in collecting the feedback and its ultimate value.”

I encourage you to read the full article on the SSIR site and consider the opportunities and challenges funders face in collecting and utilizing beneficiary feedback, not just before or after a program has been implemented, but during its execution, when feedback information can still influence outcomes.

As an organization that advocates for the value of all stakeholder feedback, CEP will continue to trumpet the virtues of beneficiary perceptions. Our Pursuing Results conference in Detroit this May will feature a session on this topic, again led by Fay Twersky, along with Jim Knickman of the New York State Health Foundation and Marny Sumrall, Executive Director of YouthTruth.


Stephen Sullivan is Senior Coordinator of Communications and Programming at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

2013 Conference, beneficiary perceptions, indicators, nonprofit sector, role of philanthropy, YouthTruth
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