June 24, 2012

To Build Better Programs, Charities Must Listen to the People They Help

When Jesus and Carmen, who lived with their three children in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, learned about a city-run program to help low-income, first-time homebuyers, they signed up right away. Before they could learn if they qualified for a loan, they were told they needed to take a financial-education class.

Arranging child care for their kids, one of whom is disabled, was not easy. Jesus rearranged his restaurant work schedule and the couple took the two-hour bus ride on weekends. It took almost two months for them to complete the eight hours of required training. Then it took two more months to get a meeting with the loan specialist. Finally, when they sat down with the specialist, it took less than five minutes to find out their income was just below the required threshold—they didn’t qualify for a loan.

This story of wasting time and money is all too common, and is not even the most egregious example of the way the social-service world now leaves people feeling voiceless and frustrated. It’s not just the people who use the programs who suffer; the inefficient process also hurts nonprofits, grant makers, and taxpayers. In the nonprofit world, we too often miss opportunities for improvement because so few organizations get the perspective of the people who receive their services.

Fixing such problems would not be as hard as it might seem if the nonprofit world were to adopt the kinds of systems businesses use to get consumer feedback. More grant makers need to start paying for efforts to collect information, and to make their awards conditional on positive feedback from the people who benefit from their services.

As nonprofit leaders, we’ve seen the power such feedback can have, in helping communities benefit from better services and helping foundations and organizations do a better job of achieving their missions.

The Family Independence Initiative’s past 10 years of working with low-income families has repeatedly proved the power of information sharing. We collect extensive data from families on the progress they are making in improving their lives.

Each household receives a computer to record information into our online data-tracking system in six areas, such as the family’s progress in building financial assets, getting additional education and skills, taking steps to improve their health, and helping others.

Participants also rate any program in which they participate on a scale of one to five stars and provide comments—all of which is shared. It is a simple system (and less expensive for us than hiring staff members to collect data) and families say they find the tracking tool very useful.

In Oakland, Calif., for example, we’ve seen Iu Mien refugees from Laos share information about what colleges are best and within reach financially.

Families also share information about scams and scam artists. A predatory lender was exposed and no longer does business with Salvadoran immigrants he tried to exploit, thanks to the information-sharing network. It is clear that feedback provides benefits both to programs and to those who use programs and services.

At GreatNonprofits we take an even broader approach to getting feedback. Volunteers and donors, as well as those who benefit from a nonprofit’s work, can post reviews of more than 1.4 million nonprofits. Numerous service providers have used this information to improve their programs. North Hill Community Outreach in Allison Park, Pa., an interfaith organization that provides crisis services, learned that the people they served most valued caring, dedicated volunteers. That helped the group give high priority to recruiting and keeping volunteers.

A few foundations also have joined efforts to reach out to the people they want to serve to ask for advice about shaping grant-making programs.

The Eckerd Family Foundation, a private fund that makes grants in Delaware, Florida, and North Carolina, paid a nonprofit to conduct focus groups of foster children to figure out the best ways to help youngsters finish high school. The foundation viewed the kids as the “customers” and provided real-world solutions to the issues that they faced.

The data changed foster-care practices in the Hillsborough County school system in Florida. The students in foster care asked for a guidance counselor to help them overcome the obstacles to finishing high school. After a counselor was hired, graduation rates rose by more than 50 percent. The foundation has adopted the motto: Do nothing about us without us.

More foundations and nonprofits need to adopt that attitude. First they will need to overcome some misperceptions.

Some nonprofit executives think that program recipients “don’t really know what’s good for them.” Those with this mind-set naturally don’t value the opinion of someone they see as incapable and in need of guidance. We notice it even in the language they use; they refer to their “recipients” when really they should think of them as consumers.

However, plenty of research shows that low-income consumers of social services do have valuable feedback, and the tools exist to collect it.

The Knight Foundation used Gallup pollsters to learn about the perspectives of residents in 26 communities for a study on local economic growth. The results showed a surprising relationship between residents’ emotional connection to their town and the town’s gross domestic product, a finding that has informed policy making in many cities. The California Endowment used pollsters to gauge the sentiments and understanding of the Affordable Care Act. The results led to an information campaign to increase awareness.

Today’s technology provides easy ways to capture clients’ feedback quickly and at low cost. With 74 percent of adults online and wireless devices prevalent, it is only a matter of time before we see cellphone apps that will help gather information from nonprofit clients.

But it’s not enough for foundations and nonprofits simply to ask more questions of clients. Grant makers must also start making such feedback a condition of getting a grant and ask grantees to demonstrate how they are using client information to improve their performance.

Part of a foundation’s responsibility is to make nonprofits accountable to the people they serve. Forward-thinking foundations that invest resources to devise new methods to collect and share feedback will promote increased accountability throughout the nonprofit world.

Most important, in this time of tight fiscal conditions, foundation and government money will be spent more efficiently with better information from consumers—and the least-listened-to people in society will finally have their voices heard.

Mia Birdsong is vice president of the Family Independence Initiative, a nonprofit that works to increase the social and economic mobility of low-income families. Perla Ni is chief executive of GreatNonprofits, an organization that develops tools to help people rate charities. This article is adapted from an article in the summer issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.