September 04, 2014

More Feedback Would Improve Foundations’ Service to Society

"We value your feedback as a customer of our services. Would you be willing to answer a few questions at the end of this?"

Airlines, online retailers, medical offices, and restaurants all ask these kinds of questions. They recognize that getting regular customer feedback helps them continuously improve. It doesn’t mean they take every suggestion, or that businesses are handing over the reins of decisions to their customers.

Far from it.

But the consistent avenues for feedback do mean that businesses can listen and consider what they hear, and then make adjustments to respond to customer preferences, thereby improving their outcomes—the bottom line. Often, businesses publicly share the changes they make because customers appreciate responsive businesses.

What if the people meant to benefit from the programs that foundations support, as well as the nonprofits we finance, could contribute their needs, opinions, and experiences to help us improve our current grant-making programs and suggest ideas for the future? Imagine if all of us working for social and environmental change understood better what the intended beneficiaries of our work think and what we could do differently to ensure that we achieve our goals.

We know, for example, that patients who report high-quality experiences with their doctors and nurses—where the health professionals clearly explain conditions and offer treatment choices—often have better health outcomes than those who report low-quality experiences. And when students have overall positive feelings about their classroom experiences, they fare better academically.

That means measuring how patients, students, and others feel about the institutions that serve them can pay fast dividends.

Rather than waiting years to find out if a student will graduate, nonprofit and foundation staff members can measure what the student thinks about the school she attends and make real-time adjustments that ensure she achieves. But that won’t happen if we don’t make a deliberate effort to get feedback about the experience.

As foundation leaders, we believe that lack of openness and input from the people nonprofits serve prevents us from being as effective as we want and need to be. We have been asking ourselves how the foundation world can do better.

How can we learn more about the ways people experience the services and products our grantees provide? Do they find the services useful? Relevant? Are the hours of operation convenient? Is there room for improvement? If we knew the answers, might we also improve the outcomes?

It’s time to make gathering such feedback routine so that all of us, at both foundations and other nonprofits, reliably consider the perspectives and experiences of those we seek to help.

But we know such efforts are costly, in both time and money, and too few experiments have been conducted to figure out the most effective ways to get feedback that matters.

To help elevate the voices of the people our grant money is designed to help, we have joined with five other grant makers to create the Fund for Shared Insight, which will award $5-million to $6-million a year over the next three years.

In addition to Ford and Hewlett, we are joined by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the JPB Foundation, Liquidnet, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Shared Insight will award one- to three-year grants to nonprofit organizations that seek new ways to get feedback and use the findings to improve their programs and services, and conduct research on whether those improvements—and the willingness to listen to clients—make a difference. We’ll also finance projects that take other steps to promote more openness among grant makers, nonprofits, and the public.

We further commit to sharing what we are learning—both what works successfully and lessons learned when things don’t go as planned.

Those insights and experiments will help, but we also need more donors and nonprofits to join this crusade, and to make asking for feedback part of our everyday routine.

Hilary Pennington is vice president of the Ford Foundation’s Education, Creativity and Free Expression Program. Fay Twersky directs the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group. They are co-chairs of the Fund for Shared Insight, which is housed at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.