Unlocking the Potential of Beneficiary Feedback

Jen Wilka

How can we better listen to, learn from, and act on feedback from those we seek to help? 

The topic of listening to beneficiaries has received increasing attention in recent years. CEP research conducted in 2014 showed that most grantees of major foundations were collecting and using feedback from their beneficiaries to improve their programs and services. However, leaders of these nonprofits said that foundations lacked a deep understanding of their intended beneficiaries’ needs — and that they believe this lack of understanding is reflected in foundations’ funding priorities and strategies.

CEP’s most recent report, Staying Connected: How Five Foundations Understand Those They Seek to Help, explores the practices of foundations that are highly rated by their grantees on their understanding of beneficiary needs. The report finds that these funders develop that knowledge by:

  • Listening to and learning from grantees as the experts doing the work on the ground;
  • Recognizing the importance of going out into the fields and communities their work supports; and
  • Hiring staff from the fields in which they fund.

Through these practices, these five foundations exemplify a culture of learning.

This theme — and the importance of learning through listening, in particular — echoes findings of CEP research conducted in 2016, in which foundation CEOs reported that the single most promising practice for the future of foundation philanthropy is “seeking to learn from the experiences of those they are ultimately trying to help.” A full 69 percent of CEOs point to learning from beneficiary experiences as a practice that holds a lot of promise.

It is clear that there is an interest in listening better. But it is not always clear where — or how — to start.

YouthTruth: Listening to and Learning from Students

YouthTruth — an initiative of CEP’s that harnesses student feedback to generate insights and accelerate improvements — is one example of how funders can learn from the perspectives of those they seek to help. YouthTruth was created based on the simple but powerful premise that when you get timely feedback from those you’re trying to help, and listen to that feedback, you get better — whether you are a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, a nonprofit leader, or a funder. To date, YouthTruth has been used to survey more than 675,000 students in more than 200 districts across 38 states to inform school improvement efforts.

YouthTruth has recently seen some exciting momentum with education funders, demonstrating the various ways in which funders can use feedback to better understand the student experience and perspective about what’s working — and what isn’t — in schools.

In Texas…

Since 2016, a collaborative of districts and funders in Texas, Raising Blended Learners, has incorporated YouthTruth data alongside other academic and nonacademic indicators to measure the initiative’s progress. Raising Blended Learners is a demonstration initiative showcasing strategies for using blended learning, which combines online learning with traditional instruction, to improve student achievement. Through a 10-month competitive process, Raise Your Hand Texas and several state funders selected five districts to receive grant funding and technical assistance to implement new school models across 20 school sites.

These funders are using YouthTruth data in two primary ways. First, the data is helping inform the evaluation of the initiative. Similarly to how sites are using student perception data as a leading indicator of academic success, funders are also looking to the data as an early indicator. Along with other data sources to measure progress, YouthTruth data will be incorporated into the initiative’s comprehensive three-year evaluation.

Second, the funders are using YouthTruth data to affirm strategy. As districts innovate with new school models, disruptions and complications are likely to crop up. While there may be some initial dips in academic data as schools make the adjustment to a new learning model, student perception data helps round out the picture and helps schools and funders alike stay the course as the work gets established.

In the San Francisco Bay Area…

This summer, a group of funders in the Bay Area came together to explore the extent to which funders can constructively learn from the student experiences, insights, and perspectives captured by YouthTruth’s surveys. Recognizing that funders say they want to learn from the experiences of those they are seeking to help, as demonstrated in CEP’s 2016 research on the future of foundation philanthropy, this initiative is a concrete opportunity to do so.

To this end, a group of Bay Area funders are supporting networks of local schools and districts to participate in YouthTruth at no cost — thus removing any financial barrier to interested schools and districts. The funding partners seek to learn together, through this two-year initiative, how student feedback can inform the work of not only schools and districts, but also the funders who support them.

There are now six participating funders in the group, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Monterey Peninsula Foundation, Marin Community Foundation, Richmond Community Foundation, Community Foundation Sonoma County, and Career Technical Education Foundation Sonoma County. Each foundation has invited partner schools to join the initiative, and to date, 46 schools across four districts have accepted the invitation, 24 have started surveying, and more than 6,000 students have shared their feedback through the YouthTruth survey.

The initiative includes opportunities to come together as a learning community several times a year — sometimes in a peer group of funders, and other times with funders and school leaders together. This affords time and space to explore the data that is being gathered, the questions that are arising, and the opportunities the group collectively sees to use the beneficiary perception data to enhance effectiveness.

Finally, continuing the theme of learning, the group is committed to sharing the collective lessons learned about what funders can gain from more systematically listening to students, as well as the challenges inherent therein.

In The End…

As explored in Staying Connected, there are a number of ways that foundations can build their knowledge of beneficiary needs and incorporate that understanding into their work.

The foundations profiled in that report build their knowledge by listening to and learning from grantees as experts; recognizing the importance of going out into the fields and communities their work supports; and hiring staff from the fields in which they fund. YouthTruth and other efforts like it, including the Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen for Good initiative, offer another window into beneficiary needs and experiences, in the form of asking beneficiaries directly.

We believe student perception data can help foundations better understand the impact of their programs on the lives of students in several ways.  Funders can use student feedback data to change or affirm strategy, revise tactics, adjust funding levels or priorities, convene conversations, compare different approaches, and broker relationships.

We recognize that there will be challenges in this work, but we are excited to explore some of the concrete ways that funders can use beneficiary feedback to inform their work. We invite you to ask yourself: can you imagine how beneficiary feedback could be used at your foundation?

Jen Wilka is executive director of YouthTruth. Follow YouthTruth on Twitter at @Youth_Truth.

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