David Bonbright traces his belief in the power of voice back to a peaceful revolution. Decades ago, while living and working in South Africa as a human rights lawyer, a grant-maker with the Ford Foundation and a founder of nonprofits, Bonbright was deeply moved by the way the anti-apartheid movement was accountable to its members and their ideas.
“I saw the power of voice,” Bonbright says. “It was so inclusive. It was so beautiful.”
He’s been obsessed ever since. Bonbright subsequently came up with a simple and powerful idea called Constituent Voice, which calls upon organizations and governments to listen to and be guided by those they aim to serve. He started a London-based nonprofit called Keystone Accountability that has helped nonprofits, foundations and governments improve their performance by obtaining feedback from their constituents. He’s been described as the Johnny Appleseed of the feedback community, a loosely-organized network of nonprofits and foundations that want to improve their performance by listening.
The seeds he’s planted for years are bearing a bountiful harvest.
Last week in Washington, Feedback Labs, a hub of all things feedback, brought together nearly 200 people to take stock of how far the community has come and discuss the work ahead. There were reasons to cheer: Dozens of foundations and hundreds of nonprofits are systematically building their own feedback loops to connect more closely with their constituents. There were tough questions to confront, too, about whether the feedback movement is truly devolving power to the people–which is one of its avowed goals–or just tinkering around the edges.
As Gayle Smith, the former administrator of US AID, who now leads the ONE Campaign, put it: “Is it a game-changer or is it a box you check?”
This was the third Feedback Summit. (Here are my posts about the 2015 summit and the 2016 event.) The community is growing: Nearly 200 people attended this year, compared to about 70 at the first confab. More foundations and nonprofits than ever are embracing feedback.
The need for feedback loops should be obvious. They address a fundamental disconnect in the social sector: Nonprofits are typically funded by their donors and not by their clients, so, unlike businesses, they don’t have a financial incentive to be responsive to those they aim to service.
Not as obvious is how to do feedback well. This year’s event was packed with sessions on how to improve the practice, with titles like “Evidence on what works (and what doesn’t) in citizen participation,” “Relinquishing power in community-led grantmaking,” and “Data Operability: Huh?” It could and did get geeky.
Even so, Dennis Whittle, the chief executive of Feedback Labs, challenged nonprofits, foundations and aid agencies to keep their eyes on the big questions about whether they are willing to cede power to the people they are trying to serve. “Transforming Voice. Unleashing Power” was the theme of the summit.
“Is this merely an evolution?” Whittle asked. “Or is it a revolution in what we do and how we do it?”
Some sense of how the practice is evolving can be gleaned by looking at projects financed by the Fund for Shared Insight, a funder collaborative that provides the money that is powering the feedback community. The fund was launched in 2014 by seven core funders, and it now has the support of 67 67 funders. That’s impressive. So far, it has awarded grants to 112 nonprofits as part of its signature initiative, called Listen for Good (L4G), with more grants soon headed out the door. That’s impressive, too.
The L4G program provides nonprofits with two-year, $45,000 grants, technical advice, peer connections and, importantly, access to a simple survey with five questions that all participating L4G organizations are required to ask. They can add customized question of their own, but all beneficiaries/customers are asked:
How likely is it that you would recommend […] to a friend or family member?
What is […] good at?
What could […] do better?
Overall, how well has […] met your needs?
How often do staff at […] treat you with respect?
The first question should sound familiar. It’s taken from the Net Promoter System developed by Bain Capital, which is used by numerous companies, and the answer to it has been called the One Number You Need to Grow by NPS’s inventor, Frederick Reichheld. As more nonprofits collect answers and share them with L4G–which has collected about 29,500 answers, so far–they will be able to compare themselves to their peers.
Fay Twersky, director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group, who has guided the Fund for Shared Insight from the start, said: “The idea is to help organizations do deep systematic listening that you can’t discount, that is both quantitative and qualitative.”
So, for example, when a New York-based nonprofit called the Center for Employment Opportunities that helps men and women coming out of jail or prison find word, learned that a big “pain point” for its customers was the time they spent on hold when they called in to get job assignments, it reduced wait times dramatically.
Wait times were also a problem for clients of ECHOS, a Houston nonprofit that provides medical and human services to low-income residents, immigrants, and refugees. It sped up service delivery, extended business hours, and streamlined paperwork in in response to a L4G survey that revealed clients were frustrated.
Lunch was the issue at PACE Center for Girls, an academic and social services organizations in Jacksonville, FL. Girls at all 19 of its facilities were unhappy with the choices and taste of the food, and the organization’s staff and clients were working together to improve it.
Yet another nonprofit found dissatisfaction among older, Asian-American clients, when compared to whites; it’s now training staff and volunteers to do better. Other nonprofits may expand their offerings in response to the survey; one food bank wants to help its clients get dental care that they are seeking.
None of this is transformational.
“They are incremental changes that are building upon each other,” says Valerie Threlfall, the project lead for L4G. Taken together, she says, they can gradually change the culture of a nonprofit as leaders gain “awareness of the power of feedback.”
Questions remain. It will be interesting to see if nonprofits remain committed to feedback loops when they are no longer paid to develop and operate them. “Do the organizations really own this?” asks Melinda Tuan, the managing director of the Fund for Shared Insight.
Much will depend on foundations. They may have to insist that their grantees embrace feedback–and be willing to fund it. They surely will have to challenge the mindset that all wisdom resides with smart people with graduate degrees. Tuan says of foundations: “We are the agents of change, and we are the targets of change.”
Hewlett’s Fay Twersky acknowledges: “We still end up developing theories of change and strategies in conference rooms. We need to start with much more of a beginner’s mind.”
As for David Bonbright, he’s pleased but not satisfied with the growth of the feedback community. If feedback helps nonprofits become more effective, that’s real progress, not to be dismissed.
But it’s not enough. Bonbright wants another peaceful revolution, like the one he played a part in decades ago “It has to be about sharing power,” he says.