Get Proximate: The Potential Power of Feedback Loops

Melinda Tuan

“Philanthropy can be more effective by getting more proximate to problems,” said Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson in his opening plenary at the 2017 CEP Conference in Boston earlier this month. “Being proximate can have an impact on someone else’s life.”

Stevenson’s passionate remarks about the legacy of racial inequality in America, and his specific stories of deep pain and great hope in his work at EJI, were moving. Among his many memorable statements, the one that hit me the most was his comment that, “in public policy, it’s all about the cost-benefit. But cost to whom? Benefit to whom?”

From my perspective as someone who has worked for two decades to help foundations be more effective through measuring their social return on investment and conducting high-quality evaluations, this question of “Cost to whom? Benefit to whom?” applies directly to the work of foundations. Over the years, all of my consulting about creating social value has been from the perspective of the donor, or sometimes the nonprofit; not from the perspective of the people we seek to help.

I have the privilege of serving as managing director of Fund for Shared Insight, a national funder collaborative of almost 40 foundations dedicated to improving philanthropy by elevating the voices of those least heard. We are investing in the capacity of nonprofits and foundations to implement high-quality feedback loops — to listen to the people we seek to help and act on what we hear. At the CEP Conference, Shared Insight Co-Chair Fay Twersky moderated a panel discussion titled, “Listening Better to Beneficiaries: A Most Promising Practice.” The panel included a funder (Jehan Velji of Edna McConnell Clark Foundation), a nonprofit leader (Christine Kidd of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO)), and three of CEO’s past clients who found jobs post-prison-release through CEO: Luis Fonseca, Antoine Ragland, and Warren Sanders.

Warren shared his experience when he first started the job-training program at CEO, recalling, “I didn’t like it very much.” He went on to describe how every day he had to call a special number at 11:59 AM to find out the location of his training job for the next day. At these sites, the jobs could be anything from maintaining public housing developments to painting walls at a college campus. “I had a problem,” Warren said. “I was on hold for 15 minutes, and for some of us on re-entry, we only have prepaid phones. By the time we got through to someone at CEO, our minutes were up. It was too long.”

Warren, along with many other job trainees, provided this feedback about the long wait times to CEO. CEO recognized this as one of the biggest pain points for its participants and worked to reduce wait times at peak hours from 15 minutes down to two minutes. The group also started providing participants with descriptions of the various job sites farther in advance.

During the Q&A period following the panel presentation, one session attendee asked CEO Director of Program Innovation Christine Kidd, “These are great examples of process improvements and customer service — but are there also other examples where you are making more substantive changes in how you do your work?” Christine kindly and carefully answered, “Everybody has a different definition of what is substantive,” and went on to give several examples of other changes CEO has made based on feedback from participants.

The question made me feel angry on behalf of Warren, Antoine, and Luis. To someone like Warren, who is using his limited resources right after coming out of prison to pay for a phone card, reducing that call-center wait time from 15 minutes to two minutes is substantive. Is reducing wait times a major programmatic difference that will lead to better outcomes? Maybe not. Is it substantive to the people at the heart of CEO’s work? Yes. Does it show respect for the people whom the program is seeking to help? Absolutely.

Shouldn’t that matter to funders?

I was still ruminating on this question when, after the session, another person pulled me aside and asked me, “What else besides these small program improvements can you cite as evidence that collecting feedback is worth doing; to make the cost-benefit argument?” His perspective was clearly one of maximizing the cost-benefit to the funder, not the cost-benefit to the people being served.

I wish I had replied, “What customer-facing, for-profit company would ask, ‘Why is collecting feedback from our customers worth doing?’ What for-profit company that receives complaints from customers about call-center wait times and is then able to make changes to considerably reduce the wait time would call that improvement ‘non-substantive?’”

Foundation leaders often say that nonprofits need to be as nimble and responsive as businesses, yet, when it comes down to it, we don’t value feedback from nonprofit’s clients the way businesses value feedback from their customers. It’s time for that to change: high-quality service based on high-quality feedback should be central to how funders and nonprofits think about most effectively helping beneficiaries.

Shared Insight invites funders and nonprofits to work together in the social-sector space, building the practice of listening to and responding to those we seek to help. The simple and systematic feedback loops we are developing, supporting, and advocating for aim to put us proximate to the issues and problems raised by our beneficiaries.

But as we listen and respond, we must not forget, as Bryan Stevenson reminded us at the conference, to look at the costs and benefits from different angles.  Here, that means asking an important question: how are the people we are serving experiencing what we are offering? As funders, we must make sure to value the changes nonprofits make to their programs that are substantive to the people at the heart of our purpose.

Melinda Tuan is the project manager for Fund for Shared Insight. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaTuan.

2017 Conference, beneficiary feedback, beneficiary perceptions, CEP conference, , leading effective foundations
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