Opinion
December 20, 2016

Listening to Beneficiaries Helps Nonprofits Learn What Doesn’t Work

Nurse-Family Partnership National Service Office

A nurse conducts a home visit with a mother and her baby. The nonprofit Nurse-Family Partnership has made a systematic effort to solicit feedback from women it serves about how to improve its work.

"Prepare to be wrong."

That’s what Roxane White, chief executive of the much-acclaimed charity Nurse-Family Partnership, warned nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders this fall at a White House workshop on the best ways to use data and information collected from beneficiaries to improve social-good work.

Ms. White was talking about her organization’s efforts to systematically solicit feedback from the first-time mothers it serves about how to improve its work.

Nurse-Family Partnership’s effort to reach out to the women it serves is a part of a movement gaining ground in philanthropy: the feedback movement.

Sometimes referred to as "constituent voice" or "beneficiary feedback," the notion is simple: listening to and acting on the ideas shared by people at the heart of social-good efforts.

Talking About Feedback

The movement got encouragement three years ago when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy invited government, business, philanthropic, and nonprofit leaders to discuss the emerging field of feedback loops. Since then, many foundations — including Ford and Hewlett, where we work — have joined forces to create the Fund for Shared Insight, which offered a grant to Nurse-Family Partnership and dozens of other groups interested in making more active efforts to learn from their beneficiaries.

One reason so many foundations and government agencies have enthusiastically invested in Nurse-Family Partnership is that the organization has been rigorous about relying on evidence and data to improve its work helping mothers stay healthy during pregnancy and learn child-rearing techniques.

The organization has long used the most rigorous evaluation tool, the randomized controlled trial, to test its effectiveness. Until recently, however, it had never taken the most direct path to understanding the mothers’ experience: asking them for feedback.

Nurse-Family Partnership staff members quickly learned that some assumptions they made were wrong. They thought, for instance, that the mothers they serve didn’t want to use technology to communicate; in fact, the moms preferred communicating through text messages. This feedback helped the charity stay better connected with mothers, a key factor in successfully serving its clients.

Not only did the mothers appreciate the texts; they also told staff members how much they appreciated the nonprofit’s openness to hearing what was working and what was not.

Listen and Learn

When the White House first asked nonprofit, government, and foundation leaders to come together and work on ways to improve social programs, we talked about how efforts to collect feedback made sense morally and logically. But we weren’t sure how feasible it was for nonprofits to gather the feedback they needed, especially in ways that were systematic, continuous, and easy to use for benchmarking progress.

Since that meeting, grant makers and nonprofits of all stripes have experimented with and learned about the power of feedback. A new report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy reveals that foundation CEOs see listening to and learning from those they seek to help as a key tool for foundations to achieve greater impact.

We see the genuine excitement about this idea through the work of organizations such as the Center for Employment Opportunities, which helps individuals coming out of the prison system train for and obtain jobs. At all 12 of the center’s sites, participants systematically provide information on how the nonprofit can better serve their needs.

The feedback led the organization to push back job-orientation meetings by an hour in the mornings to give participants more time to see their children, navigate public transportation, and check in with parole officers before the start of the workday.

Good World Solutions was created to harness feedback from factory employees around the world about their working conditions. It has provided more than 850,000 workers in 16-plus countries with a feedback channel that has led to direct action. In a Brazilian factory, for example, workers’ suggestions about fire safety led to new procedures that reduced from 12 minutes to two the time it takes for all employees to be evacuated from the building.

Spreading the Word

With such wins, word is spreading, thanks in part to Feedback Labs, an organization entirely dedicated to encouraging and teaching nonprofits and foundations to listen to their beneficiaries.

The Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen for Good grants program, which aided Nurse-Family Partnership, is also spreading ideas to get feedback more widely adopted.

Grantees like Nurse-Family Partnership; Our House, which serves the homeless in Little Rock, Ark.; and Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties use a simple, common tool developed in partnership with SurveyMonkey. A centerpiece of the tool is the Net Promoter System, a customer-feedback instrument widely used in the business world that allows for benchmarking feedback ratings and provides opportunities for qualitative comments. Questions include:

  • How likely is it that you would recommend [nonprofit or program] to a friend or family member?
  • What is [...] good at?
  • What could [...] do better?
  • How often do staff at [...] treat you with respect?

Setting up a clear and consistent system to solicit, learn from, and act on feedback takes time and resources. But through this work, we have learned that there are processes and tools that are rigorous, affordable, and relatively easy to share nationwide.

Three years after the first White House meeting, many of us again gathered in Washington to assess our progress. Looking back on our early questions and concerns, we have seen that gathering feedback is not only the right thing to do and the smart thing to do — it is also a feasible thing to do.

Slowly, with open minds and lots of experimentation, we are making strides toward ensuring that the process of seeking and acting on feedback from those we serve is part of standard nonprofit and foundation operating procedures. We are learning how to be better listeners and more responsive organizations. We are readying ourselves to be more prepared and, sometimes — as with Nurse-Family Partnership and its texting moms — to be wrong. In this way, we can all improve our work to make this a more just and compassionate world.

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.