The echo of constituent voice

Alliance magazine

Just over a year ago, Alliance ran a special feature on the role of feedback in the social sector. With upcoming summits in Washington DC and London, Alliance wanted to catch up with contributors to our earlier discussion for their views on progress. What are their hopes and reservations? Is feedback actually becoming transformation?

david-bonbrightDavid Bonbright, co-founder and CEO, Keystone Accountability
Looking back, I think we can say that the June 2015 issue of Alliance seems to be the start of a big and exciting new wave. Yesterday I attended a workshop at the White House with the title ‘Data-Driven Feedback Loops’! Convened by the Fund for Shared Insight and the Hewlett Foundation, the workshop marked a significant change from a first convening on this topic in 2013. Concepts are sharper, practice is emerging and funders are paying attention. Fay Twersky of Hewlett Foundation told us that a forthcoming foundation presidents’ survey will reveal that ‘the presidents’ number one priority is listening to the ultimate beneficiaries.’ Hilary Pennington of the Ford Foundation told us we were part of a ‘revolution’. Communities of practitioners are forming. On 27-28 October, Washington, DC will host its second Feedback Summit, and on 1 November, London will host its first. Between these two events some 300 social change professionals from all sectors will come together to advance this new field of Constituent Voice.

The growing force of this feedback wave is evident in the contributions below. They show that more and more funders are being caught up in it and scores of charities are using these new sources of funding to discover new ways to improve their services for those in need. Research is beginning to emerge showing the direct positive benefits to constituents from these new opportunities to use their voice.

Two ideas seem to distinguish this wave of feedback from earlier generations of participatory engagement: systematic and simple. These two ideas run through the wise words from the commentators here and I commend them to you.

As this gorgeous combination of systematic and simple settles around it, we may begin to wonder why it was not always like this. Lest we forget, I want to attest to how hard it has been to break free from the shackles of a research mindset. I draw a very bright line between rigorous thinking and research. Standard academic research methods are not the only kind of rigorous thinking. Customer Satisfaction fought its way out of Market Research, and in so doing discovered it was something different (and more useful). Then Net Promoter fought its way out of Customer Satisfaction, discovering, again, something different and more useful. Likewise, in social change practice we are, just now, fighting our way out of the ex-post research/evaluation mindset and discovering something more useful for solving important societal problems and realizing better outcomes for people.

Likewise, in social change practice we are, just now, fighting our way out of the ex-post research/evaluation mindset

I want to be clear: I am not saying that research is not important. It has its place. What is new about the present moment is that we are creating the understanding, the craft and the tools to apply Constituent Voice where it is most useful, and research where it is most useful. Before now, in social change, we had one tool – research – and we used it for things it was just not good for. The result was a dance of mutual deception in which charities and funders pretended that evaluations were sufficient to address the need for continuous improvement. One year after the Alliance special feature on feedback I hope that we can declare the arrival of a new era in which Constituent Voice and social research stand side by side in mutual respect of their comparative advantages.


genevieve-maitland-hudson-150x150Genevieve Maitland Hudson, Head of impact and evaluation, Power to Change Trust
The most important change on constituent feedback I have seen since the June 2015 issue of Alliance has directly related to my work. In May 2016, I became Head of Impact and Evaluation at the Power to Change Trust, which gave me the opportunity to influence directly the integration of feedback into our programmes. We are now actively piloting constituent feedback methods in all Power to Change’s work as a funder of community businesses in England. We will be fully integrating feedback across all funding streams by January 2017.

Before describing that work in more detail, though, it’s worth reflecting on some other hopeful signs that the sector is embracing a more active approach to seeking feedback from those it aims to help. The first is genuine enthusiasm for constituent feedback in projects where user views would previously have been seen as marginal to an overall evaluation.

I have been involved – peripherally – in two National Health Service (NHS) projects, advising on new approaches to collecting systematic feedback from patients for service improvement. One of these projects is now conducting an innovative pilot in a General Practice in the north of England, but the ambition is to roll out from that across the whole of the UK.

This development has been supported by appropriate technologies, such as SMS surveying. This also forms an important part of the systematic feedback collection taking place through Power to Change’s grantee platform. We will be testing wider constituent feedback collection in our Places Programme using systematic surveying of a range of stakeholders at neighborhood level. This will allow us to triangulate feedback collected from both community businesses and the wider community.

We believe that this systematic collection will give us an important insight into the effectiveness of our programmes. It may even allow us, in time, to predict positive outcomes of well-defined approaches to community engagement.

Good quality, readily accessible and affordable means of collecting feedback are essential if social programmes are to integrate the voices of their service users into their everyday performance management. The Power to Change platform will be one of a new set of intermediary organizations that will support this development.

We still need strong advocates, and more reliable data and analysis, but the mood has changed. We can be optimistic about the role that constituent feedback will play in the future of UK social programmes.


3af3527Jo Wells, Director, Blagrave Trust
At the Blagrave Trust, we have learned from working with our funding partners in the youth sector that while youth participation and voice is considered core to so many youth charities, systematic feedback collection that enables real-time learning is much less advanced in practice.

Nonetheless, there is a real willingness to engage, to explore options for improvement including the use of digital technology and to learn from one another. In particular there have been illuminating discussions about the opportunity to use feedback to be more inclusive, to widen reach and to hear from those who have disengaged or dropped out of services. Secondly, there is understanding that systematic feedback can change the culture of an organization so that the opinions of young people cut across all areas of work, rather than, for example, proving individual project success.

Blocks to progress cited by our partners continue unsurprisingly to be skills, time and investment. A further key challenge is finding examples of good practice in the UK that resonate with small charities, as well as the larger and well-resourced ones. To help address this we launched the Feedback Fund in July this year to advance practice and funded 12 organizations though it. We are encouraged that this initiative will generate some great learning on feedback practice over the next 6-8 months. That said, it’s still very early days.

Finally, I would add that though many funders have clear commitments to user voice and participation, they are also reluctant to recognize that charities are not necessarily doing this as well as they themselves would like; that representation on a board, for example, is only one dimension of feedback; and that funders themselves need to incentivize listening through their own practice.


downloadMelinda Tuan, Project manager, Fund for Shared Insight
What a difference a year makes! When Alliance published a special feature on feedback in June 2015, Fund for Shared Insight – a funder collaborative seeking to improve philanthropy by increasing foundation openness to hearing from the people we seek to help, acting on what we hear, and sharing what we learn – consisted of just seven founding members. Our $20 million, three-year initiative worked with 14 non-profits in 2015, nine of which were implementing and researching feedback loops in their work.

Fast forward to October 2016 and Shared Insight has grown to 36 funders and counting. We now fund 60 non-profits to further their practice of feedback loops and research the best ways to collect feedback, close the loop with the people we seek to help, and explore the connection between feedback today and participant outcomes in the future. The simple idea we described in our Alliance article to experiment with a straightforward, low-cost approach to collecting feedback in partnership with other funders is a now a nationwide initiative called Listen for Good (see Fay Twersky’s contribution, below).

To date, more than half of the organizations we work with have completed at least one round of collecting feedback and many are making changes based on what they hear to improve their services and participant experiences. For example, the Center for Employment Opportunities, which works with individuals coming out of the prison system, changed its morning training session from 7am to 8am in response to feedback that transportation issues made it difficult for users to arrive on time. In the case of New Door Ventures, an organization that works with disconnected youth to provide opportunities, participants said they wanted a meal, rather than an unsatisfying snack when attending training sessions. In each case, what was a simple adjustment for the organization is making a big difference to the people who are at the heart of the work.

With 60 organizations now collecting feedback from the people they seek to help in systematic, ongoing ways, the early lessons are flowing in and we plan to go on sharing these on our website as our work expands significantly in 2017.


Fay Twersky, Director of the effective philanthropy group, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
Although most philanthropists and people who work in the field care deeply about the people they work with, few have walked in their shoes. They often live a world apart.

That is why the Fund for Shared Insight embarked on a bold experiment this past year to Listen for Good. It’s a simple and elegant initiative designed to amplify the voices of those least heard – students, seniors, clinic patients, vocational trainees and so forth – so that they are considered by both non-profit service providers and those who fund them. In 2016, the Fund for Shared Insight (above) offered funding to 46 customer-facing non-profits to use a simple survey tool to solicit feedback from their beneficiaries. Twenty-three additional funders have joined as nominators of non-profits to participate in the feedback effort. We’ve partnered with Survey Monkey to provide the data infrastructure for Listen for Good. It’s online, and widely used and understood by non-profits. That familiarity lowers barriers to use.

The feedback tool is simple – six basic questions such as, ‘Would you recommend this programme or service to a friend or family member?’, ‘What does the programme do well?’, ‘What could the programme do better?’ The anonymous quantitative and qualitative responses can be used as benchmarks to compare one programme to other, similar ones. For non-profits and foundations, this systematic feedback provides important and actionable ideas for improvement. A food bank which took part in Listen for Good, for example, learned that, although their customers greatly appreciated the food they received, not all were satisfied with the quality of service and how they were treated by food bank volunteers. This ran counter to one of the food bank’s core missions: to combat food insecurity by reducing the negative stigma around receiving food assistance. The food bank is now placing a greater emphasis on training for volunteers to ensure that all users feel treated with dignity and respect.

Hearing feedback across many organizations affords a similarly valuable view. It offers insight into where improvements might be needed, which providers might need more help – or might be able to help others. We know funders are eager to hear the voices of the people they seek to help. But they have not always known how to listen in a way that wasn’t just anecdotal. Listen for Good offers them a way to do that.

Lead photo: Members of the Banana Growers Association of Kenya (BGAK) discussing the grades and standards required for the export market.

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