Equity and the Global Feedback Movement

Megan Campbell and Britt Lake

In her recent post on the CEP blog, Melinda Tuan of Fund for Shared Insight makes the case for the connection between feedback and equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). She writes from the perspective of Shared Insight’s work with more than 400 nonprofits and nearly 100 funders in the United States. And yet, the link between feedback and EDI in the U.S. context is only part of the story.

Feedback Labs’ 600 members operate across the U.S. and around the world. In addition to their work in the U.S., Feedback Labs members are pushing the boundaries of feedback practice in rural Kenyan counties, with families experiencing poverty in Paraguay, and in the humanitarian sector worldwide. They are part of a global movement in philanthropy, aid, and government to give people around the world a greater voice in the policies and programs that affect them.

Context varies from country to country, but at the heart of quality feedback work everywhere is the desire to shift power to people who have historically been disempowered. In some countries, inequities are characterized by systemic racism. In others, they are shaped by colonialism. Yet, the connection between feedback and equity is always profound. Feedback around the world, when done well, engages more diverse voices, champions more inclusive practices, and disrupts traditional power dynamics in ways that lead to greater equity. As a community member who participated in a recent feedback pilot in Kolkata, India, put it, “When we came to know about the beneficiary feedback mechanisms — that we should tell [our feedback], that [it] is our right — it raised our confidence, my voice.”

The way much of the global philanthropy movement approaches feedback carries important lessons for philanthropists everywhere. Feedback Labs regularly hears from its members that feedback seems closer to being the norm globally than in the U.S., especially when they consider the efforts at large aid institutions to mainstream feedback practices. For example, the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) recently supported a large feedback pilot. Five years ago, the World Bank adopted a strategic framework for mainstreaming citizen engagement. Last year, the U.S. Congress mandated that monitoring of U.S. development assistance funds include feedback from the people those funds are intended to benefit.

This commitment to feedback is exciting and promising. Yet too often global aid institutions struggle to operationalize feedback as more than a box-checking exercise. Their experiences offer three important lessons for those seeking to advance equity in philanthropy and the social sector:

  1. Awareness is not enough. Widespread agreement that feedback is important does not always lead to high-quality feedback practice. In five years, for example, the World Bank’s citizen engagement framework has generated widespread buy-in for constituent feedback among management and staff, but a recent evaluation of the framework noted that this change in mindset has not been accompanied by a significant change in practice.
  2. Closing the loop is key. Closing the loop — not only taking action on feedback received but also letting people know how one acted on that feedback — is critical to high-quality feedback practice that contributes to greater equity. But global experiences suggest it’s the most difficult, and often most neglected, step. The World Bank, for example, has struggled to close the loop consistently across programs. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Innovation Service wrote last year about how “notoriously challenging” closing the loop is. And in the trainings and problem-solving sessions that Feedback Labs runs, participants consistently cite closing the loop as the hardest step of the feedback loop. CEP’s 2014 study, Hearing from Those We Seek to Help: Nonprofit Practices and Perspectives in Beneficiary Feedback, found that 99 percent of U.S. nonprofits surveyed collect beneficiary feedback while designing programs and services. Imagine the massive shifts in power that could be unleashed if all those nonprofits were to close the loop with those from whom they’re hearing.
  3. Feedback should be funded. Experiences from our global network suggest that even when organizations want to close the loop, they don’t always know how. They need staff time, financial resources and tools, and training to help them figure out how to ensure feedback supports greater equity and inclusion in their contexts. For feedback to contribute to greater equity, it should be a funded mandate.

Convincing leaders in philanthropy, aid, and government that feedback is important is critical, but not sufficient. As we achieve more widespread acceptance of the importance of feedback, we need to make sure that feedback doesn’t become just another box to tick. Global feedback experience demonstrates that feedback has the potential to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion, but only under the right conditions — when organizations are supported to develop high-quality feedback practices with a commitment to closing the loop.

Megan Campbell is research, learning and engagement director at Feedback Labs. Follow her on Twitter at @whereismegan.

Britt Lake is CEO of Feedback Labs. Follow her on Twitter at @brittlake.

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