Listening for greater impact: the Constituent Voice


David Bonbright

David Bonbright

David Bonbright

At the 2013 CECP corporate philanthropy conference in New York, held 3-5 June, the hook was set early in the session when the room was polled. ‘How many of your companies take customer feedback very seriously?’ Every hand in the room shot up, arms fully extended. ‘How many of you put as much investment and effort in community feedback on the work you fund through your philanthropy programs?’ One hand went up tentatively to shoulder height.

Over the 75 minutes we had together we explored why listening to the voices of the primary constituents of philanthropy – those meant to benefit from the work – was every bit as important and valuable as customer satisfaction data.

Paula Luff, VP of corporate responsibility for Hess Corporation, illustrated the importance of community voice with the case of a long-term program to strengthen primary school teaching in Equatorial Guinea. There were a number of elements that contributed to the success and sustainability of that venture, but important errors in design had been avoided by careful community engagement from the outset. Moreover, that early investment in community participation had produced high levels of community engagement over more than five years. This was judged a key success factor.

Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator, the world’s largest charity rating agency, gave us a short history of Charity Navigator’s rating model, which began by rating a charity’s financial health, then added governance hygiene and now most recently, in January of this year, added a charity’s results. Berger explained that rating results posed a special challenge because ‘the data is just not there’. Most charities don’t actually measure their results in a way that bears scrutiny, and almost none publish what they know about their results. Charity Navigator’s solution is to rate the charities on what they publish about what they know about their results and how they know it. They call this third dimension of their rating model Results Reporting, and the logic behind it is that it will incentivize charities to do a better job of measuring and reporting their results. Over time, as more charities publish results, we will be able to assess and compare those results. The link to Constituent Voice arises because Constituent Voice is one of the five elements in the Results Reporting model. Berger explained that while most charities are not going to be able to meet the Constituent Voice standards that they are setting today, no charities engaged in the extensive consultations leading to the new requirements said that it was not important. To give the charities time to raise their game, Charity Navigator is not applying the new ratings until 2016. But it is applying them and posting the data for public scrutiny, example here.

LIFT co-founder and CEO Kirsten Lodal made the case for funders to work with their grantees to cultivate Constituent Voice. Funders can ask for the non-profits they fund to provide accurate, representative feedback data from their beneficiaries. They can discuss reported feedback with their grantees, and ensure that the non-profits have the resources and capacity to collect and respond to feedback. She explained how LIFT had learned through independent assessment that the demonstrable success that low-income families were experiencing through working with LIFT was grounded in the high quality relationships that were formed with LIFT, and with others in their communities. LIFT had adopted Constituent Voice as its new monitoring approach because it allowed it to be even better at producing and sustaining those high quality relationships.

To provide some detail about Constituent Voice practices, I described a bit about the methodology, tools and services that we had developed at my organization, Keystone Accountability, which is a kind of customer satisfaction firm for social development. I confessed that Keystone had shamelessly borrowed and then adapted from the techniques of the customer satisfaction industry to the context of social value creation. Our clients – including LIFT – have found them, to be incredibly useful. They yield accurate and reliable data that can be used to improve relationships and outcomes, and at a very low cost.

The strength of the session was clear when at the end we asked, ‘How many of you are leaving the room with a strengthened intention to cultivate Constituent Voice in your work?’ Virtually every hand in the room went up.

David Bonbright
 is founder and chief executive 
of Keystone Accountability

Tagged in: Charity analysis Charity Navigator Corporate philanthropy Feedback Measurement Reporting

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