HBeneficiaryFeedback_100714earing from Those We Seek to Help: Nonprofit Practices and Perspectives in Beneficiary Feedback

 

Introduction

Requests for feedback have become ubiquitous in the daily lives of consumers of goods and services. We receive a steady flow of queries via email and phone—requests for input on what we liked and what we didn’t, what worked and what didn’t, and whether we’d recommend what we bought to others. We have come to expect that, when we make a purchase, we will be asked to provide feedback about that experience.
But what about those receiving programs or services that are delivered by nonprofit organizations? What about the teenager in the after-school program for at-risk youth or the homeless mother receiving shelter for herself and her children?
For nonprofits, hearing from those they serve is more complicated and arguably even more important than it is for a business. After all, power dynamics can distort or even eliminate naturally occurring feedback loops. People who receive help from nonprofits are frequently not the ones paying for the help and may be hesitant to provide candid feedback for fear of jeopardizing their ability to continue to be served.
Yet nonprofits serving their intended beneficiaries need to find ways to hear from those they seek to help if they are to be effective.1 Nonprofits that understand the experiences of those using their programs and services can be more responsive to those they serve, can better gauge whether their work is accomplishing the desired outcomes, and can empower their constituents to have a voice.2 Most significantly, nonprofits can learn from intended beneficiaries about what is and is not working—and use that information to drive improvement. They can also use that information to ensure that they are not adversely affecting those they seek to serve.3
As if those reasons are not enough motivation, nonprofits are also facing increasing external pressure to collect beneficiary-perception data. Charity Navigator has announced plans to start rating nonprofits based in part on whether they collect or share beneficiary feedback.4 Another organization, GreatNonprofits, offers a Yelp-like platform where beneficiaries (as well as donors and volunteers) can share anonymous feedback about nonprofits.5
Some who have advocated for a greater focus on the views of intended beneficiaries assert that nonprofits do not prioritize this focus today. In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Water for People CEO Ned Breslin writes, “Unfortunately, this hunger for customer feedback hasn’t caught on in the nonprofit world.”6 Others have suggested that nonprofit leaders do seek to understand the perspective of intended beneficiaries but are inhibited by various constraints in their ability to gather quality feedback and use it to improve.7
   

Research Questions

Given the differing views, we wanted to understand:
What is the state of practice among nonprofits? Are organizations gathering feedback from intended beneficiaries and using it to drive improvement?
We were also interested in understanding nonprofit leaders’ views on the role that foundations play when it comes to hearing from—and understanding—those whom their grantees seek to serve.
How well do nonprofit leaders believe their foundation funders understand their beneficiaries and take into account their needs when setting funding priorities and strategies?
What are the characteristics of those foundations that nonprofit leaders judge to have a better understanding of the needs of intended beneficiaries?

Findings

1Most nonprofits are collecting and using feedback from their beneficiaries to improve their programs and services.
2Nonprofit leaders believe most of their foundation funders lack a deep understanding of their intended beneficiaries’ needs—and they believe this lack of understanding is reflected in foundations’ funding priorities and programmatic strategies.
3Nonprofit leaders say the foundations that best understand their organizations’ intended beneficiaries’ needs actively engage with their organizations and their work; are humble, open, and collaborative in their approach; or are deeply connected to the issues or communities.

Finding One

Most nonprofits are collecting and using feedback from their beneficiaries to improve their programs and services.

Collecting beneficiary feedback is a widespread practice at nonprofit organizations in our sample.
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Nonprofits are using a variety of methods to solicit feedback from beneficiaries—the typical nonprofit uses three types of methods.
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Almost all nonprofit leaders say that their organization is using the feedback it collects from beneficiaries to improve its work to at least some extent.

Finding Two

Nonprofit leaders believe most of their foundation funders lack a deep understanding of their intended beneficiaries’ needs—and they believe this lack of understanding is reflected in foundations’ funding priorities and programmatic strategies.

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In a 2013 survey CEP conducted of foundation CEOs, nearly three-quarters said that seeking beneficiary feedback could significantly increase a foundation’s impact and more than half reported that their foundation seeks out feedback from their intended beneficiaries. Yet the nonprofit leaders we surveyed don’t see their organizations’ foundation funders as having a deep understanding of their intended beneficiaries.
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Nonprofit leaders see this lack of understanding reflected in foundations’ funding priorities and programmatic strategies.
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Finding Three

Nonprofit leaders say the foundations that best understand their organizations’ intended beneficiaries’ needs actively engage with their organizations and their work; are humble, open, and collaborative in their approach; or are deeply connected to the issues or communities.

Below are quotes from grantees that illustrate these characteristics.
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Engaging with Grantees
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Foundations’ Approaches
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Connecting to the Issues and Communities

Download the Report

The full report provides more detail on the key findings, profiles of three nonprofits’ efforts to hear from their beneficiaries, and details about the research methodology used.

About CEP

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is a nonprofit organization focused on the development of data and insight to enable higher-performing funders. CEP’s mission is to provide data and create insight so philanthropic funders can better define, assess, and improve their effectiveness – and, as a result, their intended impact.
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1 Fay Twersky, Phil Buchanan, and Valerie Threlfall, “Listening to Those Who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries,” Stanford Social Innovation Review 11, no. 2 (Spring 2013), http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/listening_to_those_who_matter_most_the_beneficiaries.
2 David A. Campbell, Kristina Lambright, and Laura Bronstein, “In the Eyes of the Beholders: Feedback Motivations and Practices Among Nonprofit Providers and their Funders,” Public Performance and Management Review 36, no. 1 (2012): 7–30.
3 When a tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, many aid groups provided resources to help residents of villages in the affected areas, but some of the assistance unintentionally shamed aid recipients. In an evaluation the Fritz Institute conducted to assess the effectiveness of this aid, the authors noted “When [individuals, families and communities] are at their most helpless and vulnerable, practices meant to help them can strip them of their dignity and make them more vulnerable. For example, the provision of used clothes that were climatically or culturally inappropriate proved to be humiliating, particularly to the women in India and Sri Lanka.” Anisya Thomas and Vimala Ramalingam, “Recipient Perceptions of Aid Effectiveness: Rescue, Relief, and Rehabilitation in Tsunami Affected Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka,” Fritz Institute (2005), http://www.fritzinstitute.org/PDFs/findings/NineMonthReport.pdf.
4 “How Do We Plan To Evaluate Results Reporting?” Charity Navigator, http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1507#.U3ItG_ldWSo.
5 See GreatNonprofit’s website: http://greatnonprofits.org/about/.
6 Ned Breslin, “Sharing Data for All the World to See Helps Charities Do Better Work,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, February 9, 2014, http://philanthropy.com/article/Sharing-Data-for-All-to-See/144557/.
7 The Alliance for Children and Families, United Neighborhood Centers of America, and Keystone Accountability conducted a study in 2009 based on 75 human services organizations and found “that agency leaders embrace feedback and its potential for creating learning relationships with their primary constituents, but a variety of critical factors inhibit them from creating the conditions for quality feedback and mutually accountable relationships around it.” David Bonbright, David Campbell, and Linda Nguyen, “The 21st Century Potential of Constituency Voice: Opportunities for Reform in the United States Human Services Sector,” Alliance for Children and Families, United Neighborhood Centers of America, and Keystone Accountability (March 2009), http://alliance1.org/sites/default/files/constituency_voice.pdf.
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