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
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?