I’m just back from a vacation in Tulum, Mexico. I found great places to eat using Trip Advisor (try El Tabano, above), and wrote several reviews once I got home. Trip Advisor’s a great service. So imagine, if you will, a nonprofit sector with its own Trip Advisor, a guide that would help donors, volunteers and workers better understand which nonprofits do well at serving their customers.
The sector is a very long way from creating such a guide, but it is taking small steps in that direction, as more nonprofits experiment with feedback loops — efforts to listen, learn and respond to their constituents, and thereby become more effective. This is welcome news: A movement to build feedback loops into nonprofits is gathering adherents, winning support from foundations and building a community of practice.
That community gathered last week at Feedback Summit 2016 in Washington, where the excitement was palpable. Feedback loops help address a fundamental disconnect in the nonprofit world: Nonprofits typically are funded by their donors and not by their clients so, unlike businesses, they don’t have financial incentives to be responsive to those they aim to serve. Feedback loops connect them more closely to clients.
“The enthusiasm about a simple, rigorous, elegant feedback loop that includes quantitative and qualitative data has just been tremendous,” said Fay Twersky, director of the effective philanthropy group at the Hewlett Foundation.
Twersky has persuaded a growing number of foundations to support feedback loops through a collaborative called the Fund for Shared Insight. In less than three years, the collaborative has attracted funding from 36 foundations and supports feedback experiments at about 50 nonprofits, all in the US. Most use the Net Promoter System (NPS) developed for the corporate world by Bain & Co., which asks the now-familiar question: “On a scale of zero to 10, what is the likelihood that you would recommend Company X to a friend or colleague?” More about NPS, below, but first a bit of history.
About a decade ago, Twersky got excited about feedback loops while working on evaluation at the Gates Foundation. “We were really far away from the people we were trying to help with our funding,” she recalled, whether those clients were African farmers or US high school students. She wanted to bring those people into the evaluation process at Gates, which led to an initiative called YouthTruth, which surveys students across the US to figure out how they can learn better. Youth Truth has grown since then, and it is part of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), which got it off the ground.
The CEP had pioneered the use of feedback loops in philanthropy by surveying nonprofits, in an effort to improve the performance of foundations. Its president, Phil Buchanan, with Twersky and Valerie Threlfall, the founding director of YouthTruth, wrote an influential article about feedback for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, headlined Listening to Those Who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries, in 2013. They asked:
Why don’t we place greater value on the voices of those we seek to help? Why don’t we routinely listen to our most important constituents?
David Bonbright had been asking similar questions for years. A foundation executive, Bonbright had embraced “participatory development” as an alternative to conventional top-down global aid programs; he subsequently came up with a methodology known as Constituent Voice that was intended to democratize aid. In 2004, Bonbright formed Keystone Accountability, which has worked with about 250 nonprofits, foundations, governments and companies that aim to improve their performance by listening to their constituents.
More recently, with advice and support from Twersky and Bonbright, my friend Dennis Whittle formed Feedback Labs, which hosted last week’s event. Dennis and Mari Kuraishi, former World Bank executives, have been experimenting with feedback at Global Giving, a crowdfunding website, since the late 2000s.
The seeds that these people, along with others too numerous to list, planted for the past decade are now sprouting all over the place. See, for example, my recent blogpost about the nonprofit CEO, headlined Feedback: A nonprofit learns to listen to the customer.
What struck me at the Feedback Summit is the fact that even nonprofits that are already committed to using evidence have been able to improve by deploying feedback loops.
The Nurse Family Partnership, for instance, has used randomized controlled trials since the late 1970s, and is recognized as a cost-efficient social program that works; it arranges home visits from nurses to low-income pregnant mothers, and delivers proven benefits to mother and child, for years afterwards.
When the Fund for Shared Insight and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation gave the Nurse Family Partnership a $60,000 Listen for Good grant, the organization began systemically surveying the mothers to see how it could do better. All Listen for Good grant recipients use a standardized set of questions from the Net Promoter System housed on the Survey Monkey platform. They include the zero to 10 “would you recommend” question as well open-ended questions such as “how could we do our job better” or “do you feel respected by our organization.”
The Nurse Family Partnership found that the mothers wanted to connect with one another to work on common problems, and that they would prefer digital technology, such as phones or tablets, to the paper forms they now use, according to Alexa Cares, a quality coordinator for the nonprofit. The partnership works through 250 agencies around the US and serves about 33,000 clients a year, so the data could, in theory, help the organization evaluate its agencies and their nurses, as well as improve its program.
LIFT learns to listen better
The Fund for Shared Insight has given LIFT, a DC-based national nonprofit that helps families escape poverty, $900,000 over three years to build feedback loops in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, using Bonbright’s Constituent Voice methodology. LIFT has learned that the people it services, who it calls members, want to be able to get help from LIFT on evenings and weekends, as well as during business hours, and that they wanted to meet one another.
Katharine Lindquist, an evaluation manager at LIFT, said the organization has expanded its hours, organized dinners for its members and created a “cafe” in the lobby of its New York office where members can meet informally. LIFT also intends to measure whether its members perceptions of how well the organization serves them correlates with their ability to achieve their goals.
While these are still early days for feedback loops, they have the potential to improve the performance of nonprofits, give voice to those who are being served and better inform institutional and individual donors.
Feedback loops, for example, could be used to evaluate workers in nonprofits or, for that matter, those in government who deliver services. (Imagine a Social Security office or motor vehicles bureau using feedback loops.) They could be used by community foundations to see how the scores of one social service agency compare with others. At the very least, charities could be asked by donors if they listen to the voices of beneficiaries, and what they are learning.
Feedback loops raise complicated questions. Should the surveys be anonymous? (Most are.) Should they be used to evaluate nonprofits, their programs, or their workers? (Most are not.) Could feedback loops be used by advocacy groups like 350.org or Amnesty International. (Maybe.) Should any of the data be public? (To the best of my knowledge, none is.) Publicizing the scores of nonprofits will inevitably create temptations to game the feedback system; think of the distortions created by oft-maligned US News college guide.
And yet. Think about how useful ratings and reviews are on Trip Advisor, AirBnB or Amazon. Of course, evaluating a nonprofit is harder than reviewing a restaurant or book, and the stakes are much higher. But that’s why even small steps that help nonprofits improve–and help the rest of us identify high-performing organizations–deserve cheers.