Using Feedback to Inform Policy and Advocacy Work

Linda Baker

While the idea and practice of using feedback to better inform and improve performance is gaining prominence in the social sector, the earliest adopters have been almost exclusively organizations that provide direct services to clients. Providing direct services is one important way the social sector supports change — but not the only one. We also aim to improve people’s lives and preserve the planet by working to change systems and policies through advocacy, communications, and research.

What role can feedback play in improving the work of these organizations? A new report commissioned by Fund for Shared Insight, a group of funders working to build the culture and practice of feedback in philanthropy, gives us a glimpse at why, how, and where feedback might also be employed by organizations focused on policy and advocacy.

For organizations pursuing policy and advocacy work, there are several important questions to consider: Are we creating significant connections with the people who are intended to benefit most from advocacy and policy change efforts? How are we including and elevating the voices of those most impacted by the policies we aim to change or improve? For example, how are we engaging with the communities experiencing the effects of climate change to ask what is important to them in the crafting and implementation of climate resilience projects?

To begin to answer these questions, Shared Insight asked the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program at the Aspen Institute to conduct a landscape scan. Shared Insight aims to improve philanthropy by elevating the voices of those least heard, ensuring that foundations and nonprofits are meaningfully connected to each other and to the people and communities we seek to help — and more responsive to their input and feedback.

Since 2014, Shared Insight has invested in building the capacity of direct service nonprofits to implement high-quality feedback loops. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where I work, participates in Shared Insight as a core funder. Our most significant effort is Listen4Good, which over the last three years has enabled more than 240 organizations across the country to use a semi-standardized tool to systematically collect and act on client feedback. In so doing, these organizations are creating new connections with the people they seek to help. The results and momentum so far are exciting! Participating organizations are making changes to their programs, improving how they listen and hold themselves accountable, and elevating the voices of their clients.

This early success has inspired Shared Insight to examine how feedback efforts can — and should — spread throughout the entire social sector beyond just direct service organizations. After all, while advocacy work, for example, may often be thought of as abstract, especially next to direct service programs, it’s critical to remember that policy is ultimately about the people and communities it affects. The Aspen Institute’s new report explores nonprofits’ and funders’ practices and perspectives on what these important connections are all about.

Through dozens of in-person interviews, survey responses from 224 nonprofits, and research in the field, the Aspen Institute found a range of nuanced interpretations of what it means for those working in philanthropy to meaningfully connect with the people impacted by their advocacy and policy-change efforts. All these interpretations depend on building mutually beneficial relationships that nurture a community’s willingness to trust the nonprofits, and, likewise, the organization’s willingness to trust the wisdom and expertise of the community.

The Aspen Institute’s report explains that organizations can create these connections through:

  • Informing the community about a policy debate or current issues and encouraging people to respond by taking action.
  • Listening to the priorities and perspectives of communities to inform advocacy strategies and activities. This also includes asking for feedback on strategic plans, policy proposals, or the impacts of a proposal that has already been implemented.
  • Co-creating with communities; sharing decision-making roles; and developing, managing, and implementing advocacy and policy work, often through participatory decision-making processes and governance structures.

What does it take to create these connections? According to the Aspen Institute, it takes expertise in effectively holding conversations and working together with community members, including regional language and cultural competency. To succeed, organizations must also have a genuine interest in two-way relationship building and in learning from those who have expertise that comes from their own lived experience. Meaningful connections, the report says, can also be achieved by nonprofits and funders including people from impacted communities in their advocacy efforts, on their staffs, and on their governing boards.

What could this look like in practice? Late last year, the Packard Foundation provided funding to 10 grantee organizations working on advocacy and policy change to connect in new ways with the people they serve. One of those organizations, the Child and Family Policy Center of Des Moines, Iowa, sees this work as a “push to fundamentally shift our advocacy practices by authentically engaging communities of color in Iowa around our policy goals. We believe our work will be more powerful when it’s infused with the lived experience of all Iowa families.”

The Center says that its staff “tends to be called into a room to be the data and policy experts.” But now, this new way of connecting “will call for us to take a different approach.” Their project, currently in process, redefines who the experts are on families’ needs and opportunities by bringing data on family well-being to community members for discussion and to generate policy recommendations.

The Packard Foundation looks forward to hearing what our grantee partners learn about listening and forming deep connections, and to exploring how their experiences can inform other organizations in the future. At Fund for Shared Insight, the Aspen Institute report has helped advance our understanding of listening and building meaningful connections to inform advocacy and policy work. We hope other funders and nonprofits will read the report, share their feedback, and join us on this journey.

Linda Baker is the director of organizational effectiveness at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a Fund for Shared Insight core funder. Follow her on Twitter at @Lindasbaker.

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