Turning Feedback from a Mindset into a Movement

Megan Campbell and Dennis Whittle

What do people want that can make their lives better? Are we helping them get it? If not, what should we do differently? Those three questions increasingly drive the work of the most effective organizations, and CEP’s new report, Staying Connected: How Five Foundations Understand Those They Seek to Help, demonstrates the importance of asking all three.

The five foundations profiled in the report are among those ranked most highly by their grantees when it comes to questions in CEP’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR) about their understanding of intended beneficiaries’ needs. Three threads that run through the profiles of these funders mirror attributes we see among the leaders in our own network at Feedback Labs. First and foremost is simply the importance of having the proper mindset, especially among an organization’s most senior managers and board members. Second, the highest impact organizations focus on the what, as well as the how. Finally, these organizations are thinking about the big question of how to institutionalize feedback loops as a core part of their strategy — what we call adaptive management practices.

Feedback Labs supports a network of more than 400 domestic and international organizations in the aid, philanthropy, and governance sectors. Participating organizations in our network share their feedback practices and help one another solve their feedback challenges. Based on the approximately 100 collaborative sessions we’ve conducted, the importance of mindset stands out. Some organizations listen because they feel it is the right thing to do, morally and ethically. Others are motivated by the empirical research showing that feedback is the smart thing to do because it can improve measured outcomes, sometimes dramatically. Whatever the reason, when it comes to feedback, having the right mindset comes before everything else. 

That mindset is evident in the interviews highlighted in CEP’s report. As Linda Thompson of the Helios Education Foundation puts it, “Learning is one of our guiding values, as a way of strengthening our organization. So is inclusion: embracing diversity, seeking out different perspectives, collaboration. All of that feeds into the culture and how we stay engaged in order to understand not only what is happening with our partners but, more important, what is happening with the ultimate beneficiary.”

Nearly all the organizations in the Feedback Labs network are trying to use feedback to improve how they deliver services, as even small tweaks can improve efficiency and effectiveness. Just as the Duke Endowment and others highlighted in this report are, leaders in our network are starting to ask beneficiaries for this feedback: “What do YOU want to make your life better?” They then use the responses to begin a genuine conversation about what people need and what the best way to achieve that may be. When these generative conversations combine data and analysis with insights from beneficiary voice, together the two parties can come up with better solutions than either specialists or beneficiaries could generate alone. As Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies and a grantee of the SC Ministry Foundation, says in the report, “I don’t know how you would decide what to fund if you didn’t have some vision of the communities that you wanted to support and some direct knowledge of them.”

The frontier for many organizations in our network seems to be adaptive management — i.e., institutionalizing feedback loops as a core part of strategy, management, and operations. Many organizations conduct periodic site visits, questionnaires, and interviews that give them good insights, but their business processes remain largely unchanged: staff present a strategy to the board, develop projects based on that strategy, and then evaluate those initiatives when they are completed. Those evaluations are then (in theory) fed into the next strategy cycle. In practice, however, many complain that evaluations are treated merely as a formality.

Participants in our network are starting to ask, “How can we listen and learn faster? How can we adapt what we do as we go, rather than merely passing judgment on what we have done in the past? Can we create incentives to adapt based on what we learn along the way, rather than punish staff for ‘messing up’ the original design?” When these questions apply to listening to and learning from beneficiaries of funding, it’s a powerful step in the right direction for turning feedback from a ticked box into meaningful action.

The CEP report highlights the fact that beneficiary feedback is the right, smart, and increasingly feasible thing to do. The big question now is: What can we do together to make it the expected thing to do as well?  Achieving this will require a concerted effort by many groups working together.

The good news is that exciting experiments and pilots are underway. The Fund for Shared Insight now has 18 major funders involved, and has made more than 130 grants to organizations (including to Feedback Labs and to CEP, to fund this report) to help push the frontiers of theory and practice. Shared Insight’s Listen4Good program is facilitating feedback experimentation by domestic U.S. nonprofits with more than 100 grants. Some of the big funding, rating, and advisory platforms such as GlobalGiving, Keystone, Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and Root Change are actively collaborating to see if the domestic and global philanthropic “markets” can reward those organizations that actively listen and learn. Our own LabStorms, collaborative brainstorming sessions, and the Sprint Relay process are bringing a wide network together to help each other incorporate feedback as the heartbeat of their operational and strategic processes.

As Lin B. Hollowell III of the Duke Endowment says in the report, “To maintain a thorough understanding of the need, where it is today and where it is going in the future, requires a real time commitment.” It requires the right mindset and commitment to adaptive management as well. The challenges to making feedback the expected thing we do are substantial. But progress is being made, and the tipping point will come if groups continue to collaborate and experiment to create the right balance of mindset, tools, and incentives.

Megan Campbell is senior manager of research and learning at Feedback Labs. Follow her on Twitter at @whereismegan.

Dennis Whittle is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Feedback Labs. Follow him on Twitter at @DennisWhittle.

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