I was extremely heartened to read CEP’s latest research report, Hearing from Those We Seek to Help: Nonprofit Practices and Perspectives in Beneficiary Feedback. In particular, it was amazing to see that more than 92 percent of nonprofits surveyed collect feedback from their beneficiaries before, during, or after program or service delivery. Moreover, 89 percent of respondents described that they tend to collect feedback both during and after the provision of programs or services. I frankly was amazed to see rates this high – I wouldn’t have guessed.
While this kind of ongoing data collection is worthy of celebration, we shouldn’t be satisfied by the mere affirmation by nonprofits that they’re collecting this data. Rather, the field must continually challenge itself to ensure that beneficiary feedback data:
- Is collected systematically and not just occasionally or to simply check a box and move on. It feels good to be able to say you collect feedback, but talking to a few program participants or holding one town hall meeting is not enough. To be meaningful, beneficiary feedback must be collected routinely and embedded into ongoing performance management and measurement processes. Per CEP’s data, fewer than 54 percent of organizations acknowledge that they systematically interview beneficiaries or conduct focus groups.
- Is empowering for beneficiaries. Essentially, it’s important that organizations think carefully about the tone they strike in collecting data. For instance, are you collecting pre-post data on program participants as if they are simply subjects in a study? Or are you reaching out and engaging them as thoughtful co-participants in designing and assessing programs? There’s a big difference between the two. Beneficiary feedback, when done well, should have an impact on the actual balance of power in an organizational system. For that to happen, a co-participatory tone tends to be more effective.
- Informs organizational decisions. If an organization’s culture or management systems don’t provide opportunities for beneficiary feedback to be accessed by staff members who are directly responsible for designing and implementing programs, it is worthless (ouch, sorry). This is admittedly the hardest part of the beneficiary feedback equation. Once you have all this data, what do you with it? How do you make sure senior decision-makers review it and then integrate it into strategic and program planning efforts? In this regard, your approach to data collection and synthesis matters a lot. If you collect too much data, it’s too overwhelming to process. If you don’t collect enough, it’s not representative and too difficult to draw conclusions from. But challenges aside, one thing is clear: Not only should beneficiary feedback be used to inform implementation practices (as many of the examples in CEP’s report discuss) but it must also be collected, reviewed and synthesized in a way that guides and informs overall strategy.
It strikes me that these points are valid not only for nonprofits but for foundations as well. As CEP’s survey data illustrates, foundations have even farther to go to ensure that beneficiary feedback informs their work. The majority of nonprofits respond that they have not received any assistance – financial or otherwise – from foundations in support of beneficiary feedback efforts. Moreover, 84 percent of nonprofits say that only some (or fewer) of their funders have programmatic strategies that reflect a deep understanding of intended beneficiaries’ needs. This is not adequate.
What it would look like if funders (and nonprofits, for that matter) were held accountable for creating systematic listening processes as part of their core planning efforts? Imagine a world in which you could ask to see the results of an organization’s beneficiary feedback projects and not just its theory of change or logic model. This is where the rubber meets the road and right now it’s clear that a lot of seat belts need to get buckled…However, it is exciting to see to see the path being paved as we speak.
Valerie Threlfall is a nonprofit strategy consultant and co-founder and former Vice President of the YouthTruth Initiative at CEP. In her work as an independent consultant, she conducted the landscape analysis for the newly established Fund For Shared Insight — a multiyear collaborative effort among funders led by the Hewlett Foundation.