The Disruptive Potential of Feedback
by MARC GUNTHER, OCTOBER 18, 2015 ( reblogged http://nonprofitchronicles.com/2015/10/18/the-disruptive-potential-of-feedback/)
Few institutions in the US are as undemocratic as endowed foundations. The executives in charge of foundations answer to, er, no one. They give money away, so people tend to laugh at their jokes, tell them they look well, nod in agreement at their banal remarks. What’s not to like?
As for nonprofits, they pay heed to foundations and donors, but they need not listen to their “beneficiaries,” unless they feel a moral obligation to do so. What if, goodness knows, the people they are trying to serve turn out to be unhappy with the service? Talk about inconvenient truths.
Last week in Washington, a group of about 70 people — the generals and foot soldiers of a growing movement to devolve power to mostly poor recipients of aid in the US and abroad — came together to talk about how to turn that power dynamic of philanthropy upside down. They believe that feedback from constituents “has the potential to unleash massive, timely and necessary changes in the way social change and development are pursued,” in the words of Feedback Labs, a DC-based NGO that convened the firstFeedback Summit.
As Dennis Whittle, the executive director of Feedback Labs, has written:
Will aid and philanthropy democratize themselves? Will aid agencies and foundations cede power and sovereignty to the people they are trying to serve?
It’s too soon to say but there were signs during the two-day confab that a half-dozen or so forward-thinking foundations, along with a growing number of nonprofits, are starting to figure how to create tight feedback loops that will enable them to solicit feedback from citizens, listen, analyze and, most important, change their practices as a result of what they learn.
“It’s the right thing to do, morally and ethically, philosophically. It’s the smart thing to do,” Whittle said. Now the goal is to make it “the feasible thing to do, financially and operationally.”
How do feedback loops differ from conventional monitoring and evaluation (M&E)? One attendee told me that feedback loops are the equivalent of diagnosing and treating a disease; a conventional evaluation is more like an autopsy, and thus of limited value to the patient.
Here are three signs that the feedback movement is gathering momentum:
A group called the Fund for Shared Insight, a collaboration of foundations that makes grants to improve philanthropy, has launched an initiative called Listen for Good that intends to fund 50 nonprofits to seek feedback from the people they are trying to help. They will use the now-famous Net Promoter System methodology developed for business by Bain & Co., which is working with the fund to make sure that the simple, elegant and yet rigorous system is deployed effectively. “It needs to be a high velocity loop of feedback, learning and action,” said Vikki Tam, a Bain partner. To the extent possible, the feedback results will be made public, enabling nonprofits to compare their net promoter scores with peers. “It’s so important for foundations to be open about what they do, and what they’re learning,” said Lindsay Austin Louie, a program officer at William and Flora Hewlett Foundation who works closely with the fund. Supporters of the fund include the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the JPB Foundation, Liquidnet (which I wrote about here), the Rita Allen Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Efforts to build “good enough” feedback loops are underway, aimed at helping small or midsize NGOs measure their impact without having to undertake expensive, long-term randomized control trials. Thoai Ngo, a senior director of research at Innovations for Poverty Action, talked about an effort called The Goldilocks Project that aims to build “right-fit” evaluation systems, focusing on collecting credible, actionable data in a timely way–that is, feedback to help an NGO change course if needed. Ken Berger, the former chief executive at Charity Navigator, described his work at a firm called Algorhythm which offers impact measurement to small NGOs for as little as $750. “These are organizations that never before had an opportunity to measure what matters most,” Berger said.
Technology is making it much easier to gather feedback, and make sense of it. Louis Dorval is the co-founder of VOTO Mobile, a Ghana-based tech startup that aims to “amplify the voice of the under-heard” by using voice and text messages on mobile devices to survey citizens, as well as send one-way messages. Less than three years old, Voto Mobile has already worked with about 250 organizations, including Unicef and Innovations for Poverty Action. David Bonbright of Keystone Accountability, who is a pioneer in the feedback arena, talked about Feedback Commons, an online platform designed to allow organizations to “share and compare” the feedback they collect from their constituents.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
All these initiatives are designed to improve the development of feedback loops. Before long, NGOs should be able to show how collecting feedback generates better outcomes for their clients. That’s all to the good. Think of that as the supply side of the feedback “business.”
But what about the demand side? Who’s going to fund feedback loops? I’m still a newcomer to the development world but my impression (from reporting on water and sanitation projects, and on cookstoves) is that most foundations and NGOs are not as rigorous as they could and should be about measuring their impact.
This brings us back to the fundamental power dynamic of philanthropy, as Caroline Fiennes of Giving Evidence explained during the Feedback Summit.
“Why don’t foundations ask for feedback?” Fiennes asked. “Because they don’t have to.”
“It’s difficult and it’s a bit painful,” she went on. “If you have made a chunk of money and you want to give it away, in general you will feel good about that, and everybody will love you. Once you start asking questions” — questions designed to find out if the work is making as much of a difference as it can–“you might not like the answers.”
In an essay called What do they want? at Aeon, Claire Melamed elaborates:
While most individual aid workers do care, very much, about the people they work with and for, the actual structure of the aid business offers few reasons for anyone to worry about what aid recipients think or want. Staff in aid agencies need to think about what their funders want to pay for. For their own performance reviews, they need to think about how to demonstrate that what they are doing is achieving the best possible results with the smallest amount of money. So the incentives for spending money on expensive surveys to find out what representative samples of poor people think of their operations are just not there.
And besides, the information might be a threat. What if it turned out that people feel patronised by aid workers? Or that they would rather their food didn’t arrive with logos announcing their indebtedness to foreign governments? Or that they resent being given a T-shirt when really they would sooner just have the money? What if people don’t really want another agricultural programme, and they’d rather have a bus ticket to the nearest town and somewhere to stay when they get there? These kinds of discoveries could be quite discomfiting for the agencies themselves – though in the long run, they would presumably do a better job.”
This is why those funders (like the foundations behind the Fund for Shared Insight) who push for feedback loops and rigorous evaluation deserve a lot of credit. Let’s hope their numbers grow.
Altruistic Accountability… for Sustainability
Many of us in international development feel a sense of responsibility for others to be well, and for our work to improve their lives as well as for the work to be done in good stewardship of aid resources and optimizing their impact. As Matthieu Ricard writes, "Altruism is a benevolent state of mind. To be altruistic is to be concerned about the fate of all those around us and to wish them well. This should be done together with the determination to act for their benefit. Valuing others is the main state of mind that leads to altruism." We also feel a responsibility to our international aid donors and taxpayers. We who implement, monitor and evaluate projects work to ensure that the altruism of aid is responsible to both donors and recipients.
Altruism appears most vividly when implementers issue appeals after disasters, with millions donated as a result, but unsung heroes are also development workers. Organizations such as Charity Navigator, ONE and Center for Global Development on how well US organizations spent funds and track donor-country policy accountability. Thoughtful donor studies such as French Development Agency’s OECD study report on the power of AidWatch and Reality of Aid intiatives in Europe for their taxpayers.
But who is pushing for our donor’s accountability to the country’s participants themselves? While USAID funds many program evaluations, some of which “identify promising, effective…strategies and to conduct needs assessments and other research to guide program decisions”, they are always at project end, rather than looking at sustainability of the outcomes and impacts, and focus on Congressional and domestic listeners. This is no funding and no small audience. The US Department of State/ USAID’s FY13 Summary report states that in fiscal year 2013, USAID had $23.8 billion to disburse, over $12 billion for programming. While total beneficiary (participant) numbers were not provided, emergency food assistance alone used $981 million for nearly 21.6 million people in 25 countries.
So who is a watchdog for what results? OXFAM may excellently highlight opportunities for better programming. 3ie does many studies looking at projected impact and does systemic reviews (but only three were post-project). Challenges such as Making All Voices Count may fund channels for country-nationals to hold their own governments responsible, but can in-country project participants ever demand sustainable results from anyone but their own governments? Herein lies the crux of the issue. Unless governments demand it (unlikely in ‘free’ aid), only pressure from donor country nationals (you? we) can push for changes.
At the core of Valuing Voices mission is advocacy for altruistic accountability of the sustainability of projects to country-ownership at all levels. For us, this involves valuing and also giving voice to those supported by, and also tasked with doing ‘sustainable projects’. Unless we know how sustainable our development projects have been, we have only temporarily helped those in greatest need. This means looking beyond whether funding continued to whether the benefits of an activity or even the existence of entire local NGOs tasked with this actually continued after funding was withdrawn. Unless we strive to learn what has continued to work best or failed to be continued after projects left in the views of the participants themselves, we can let down the very people who have entrusted us with hopes of a self-sustainable future of well being. Unless we listen to project staff and local partners to see what program staff felt they did right/wrong, and national partners felt they were supported to do keep doing right, we have minimized success of future projects. While increasing numbers of organizations such as Hewlett Foundation fund work to “increase the responsiveness of governments to their citizens’ needs. We do this by working to make governments more transparent and accountable,” the long-term effectiveness of our donor development assistance is not yet visible.
OECD guidelines on corporate accountability and transparency are illuminating. Adapting it from State-Corporate to Non-profit-State is interesting. For how well have we considered who ‘owns’ these development projects in practical terms from inception onward? Our donors? Implementing agencies? Local partners and communities?
OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance of State-Owned Enterprises
1: The State Acting as an Owner
2: Equitable Treatment and Relations with Shareholders
3: Ensuring an Effective Legal and Regulatory Framework for State-Owned Enterprises
4: Transparency and Disclosure
How well do we design projects along these lines to do this successfully? Not terrifically:
Too often ‘stakeholders’ are not consulted at the very inception of the proposal design, only at design or implementation
Too often our work is aimed at making only our ‘client’- our donors- happy with our results rather than the country nationals who are tasked with self-sustaining them.
Too often handover is done at the 11th hour, not transferring it throughout implementation or building local capacity for those taking over be true projects’ owners.
But it is coming, through changing societal trends. On the data-access front, USAID (and differently, other European donors) have promised to modernize diplomacy and development by 2017 by “increas[ing] the number and effectiveness of communication and collaboration tools that leverage interactive digital platforms to improve direct engagement with both domestic and foreign publics. This will include increasing the number of publicly available data sets and ensuring that USAID-funded evaluations are published online, expanding publicly available foreign assistance data, increasing the number of repeat users of International Information.” Now to generate and add self- sustainability data to inform future projects!
Second, on the they-are-se front, our basic human nature, according to Ricard, lends itself to altruism. “Let's assume that the majority of us are basically good people who are willing to build a better world. In that case, we can do so together thanks to altruism. If we have more consideration for others, we will promote a more caring economy, and we will promote harmony in society and remedy inequalities.” Let’s get going…
When Funders Move On: Donors and nonprofits need to learn more about how to help program participants keep progressing after the support ends.
Imagine standing in Detroit or South-Central Los Angeles. A team of experts has come to help you out of grinding poverty. Some of these experts specialize in credit issues, others in education or health or gardening. They have funding for three years, so they set up offices, create participant lists and prioritize problems to tackle. They give you seeds and loans, and advice. And you—and others from your neighborhood—begin creating small businesses and home gardens. You and other adults learn about infant nutrition; children who live in your area get free school materials; teachers at your local schools receive extra training. Everyone begins to do better.
A year and a half passes. Another expert arrives to find out how things are going relative to the team’s projections. Some businesses are succeeding, others have faltered; some gardens are flourishing, others are neglected. You participate in a focus group, and you answer questions optimistically.
At the three-year mark, many of your neighbors are participating in this project, and tangible successes appear to be spreading. But suddenly, the experts are packing their boxes. The project office closes. The initiative has supposedly been “handed over” to the community. No one who worked for the project comes back.
No one comes back. This is the state of affairs for too many so-called “sustainable international development” initiatives around the world, and it has to change.
As Gugelev and Stern brilliantly note in a recent SSIR article, we must be transparent about our “endgame”: Too many international development projects are bound to fixed endings and “fail to reckon with the gap between what the nonprofit can achieve and what the problem actually requires.” Due to fixed funding requirements, donors often leave when the calendar tells them to, whether or not a project has achieved the desired impact. And according to Valuing Voices research, they don’t even go back to assess the outcomes of their work or consider what (if anything) might help progress continue!
Since 2000, the US government has spent more than $280 billion on bilateral and multilateral assistance; the EU has spent $1.4 trillion. Just in 2002, US foundations, businesses, and NGOs spent more than $34 billion overseas. And while most taxpayers believe that this spending supports “sustainable development,” our research shows that 99 percent of the nonprofit grant and for-profit contracted projects these funds enabled were not evaluated after the funding concluded. Unfortunately, this continues: In 2014, the US spent $20 billion and the EU spent $80 billion on program assistance without any plan for post-project evaluation. This does not mean the projects are not sustainable; we simply do not know.
In fact, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—once considered the leader in post-project evaluations assessing relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability—has managed only one post-project evaluation in 30 years (due later this year). And although thousands of documents appear in multilateral donor database searches as evaluations, most are “desk studies”—conducted remotely and not based on new fieldwork. Of these, only a few include feedback from program participants (leading the way are Japan’s International Cooperation Agency and the UN’s Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which have systematically done post-project evaluations).
There is usually terrific monitoring and evaluation during project implementation (red) and evaluation at start-mid-end (green), virtually no one returns afterwards (blue).
Why don’t we do a better job of following up? Are we afraid of the possibility of seeing poor results? If so, it’s time to face that fear. In some cases, we will surely see good results or even unanticipated positive impact—we’re missing that too.
Hewlett Foundation’s Fay Twersky implored nonprofits to “systematically solicit feedback from intended beneficiaries” in an SSIR podcast on Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). We agree. We need to know more than whether those participants’ situations are improving while a program is in full swing, and we need to know what it will take for things to continue to improve after the funding goes away. Imagine the cost efficiencies we would gain by replicating activities that they could sustain. Imagine the cost-efficiencies and productivity if we prioritized activities with the largest sustainable return on investment (ROI). Now that is something impact investors could buy into.
There are positive signs on the horizon. According to Keystone Accountability, an increasing number of nonprofit organizations are committing to “making governments, NGOs, and donors more responsive to the needs of their constituents.” And funding that supports the idea of using participant feedback to improve programs and make them sustainable is on the rise, as Center for Effective Philanthropy’s “Hearing from Those We Seek to Help” and the Fund for Shared Insight have noted. All of this could yield a hugely different array of endgames that are sustainable by communities that can perhaps later even select development aid offers based on past effectiveness.
But there is still much to do. We offer the following recommendations to project implementers and donors, based on our own experience, and on our observations of several initiatives where we have seen project participants independently continuing and adapting work that was begun with external support:
- Shift the development model from what donors and implementers think would be best to what the intended participants think is best. Design projects with them, and mandate that request for proposals (RFP) design involves communities.
- Document, share, and discuss what was most sustained and what participating communities and local partners can do to sustain projects, and how we can sustainably support them through design and implementation to make them more effective.
- Require a plan for transitioning to sustainability after projects close for any project that uses more than $1 million dollars. This should include handover plans to local nonprofits, with training and financial support; training for communities on how to manage the sustainable activities it prioritizes; financing mechanisms for those activities; and report sharing in IATI open-data format, with project data saved and stored in the cloud for global access.
- Do post-project sustainability evaluations on all these projects, and discuss the results widely with other funders, the government, and the private sector, including how to feed back lessons into future design.
- Advocate for participatory input in all evaluations. This input should make up 30 percent of future evaluation findings (now far less).
- Consistently solicit feedback from local communities through national evaluators, both during and after projects, to better understand how the program you’re running or supporting from afar is working on the ground. Invest in building the national capacity and systems needed to make that feedback helpful for all stakeholders, including national governments.
- Advocate for extensive civil society input into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals so they serve our participants’ visions for the world they want.
As Peter Kimeu of Catholic Relief Services said to me, “It will be sustainable development if the people at community level are involved in designing and delivering their own dreams of development.”
Jindra Cekan (@WhatWeValue) is founder of Valuing Voices, with 28 years in international development design, monitoring, and evaluation. She has a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; was a University of Cambridge Fellow; and works with foundation, nonprofit, and for-profit clients.