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Why Customer Feedback Tools Are Vital for Nonprofits

A recent survey by Stanford Social Innovation Review confirmed a surprising fact: in an era where customer feedback is ubiquitous in the for-profit world, both doers and donors in the social innovation sphere struggle to systematically understand the preferences and experiences of the people they are seeking to help: the nonprofit customer.

To be sure, social innovators want to understand their client’s needs. The survey found that 88% of 1,986 respondents reported that “gathering feedback” was one of their priorities in measuring impact. But only 13% were using it as a top source of insight for improving services; and two-thirds said that lack of staff capacity and resources were the major barrier to implementing feedback systems.


These figures show that the main issue is not lack of will, but rather of feasibility. This may be in part due to a trend we’ve observed in our work: funders have not traditionally been willing to pay for approaches to gathering feedback. Also, customer feedback has historically been derided in nonprofit measurement circles as a “soft measure,” especially compared to randomized controlled trials conducted by third parties.

Now, however, in an era of human-centered design, client feedback is surfacing as the right and smart complement to measuring results. This has inspired the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to join forces with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and many other grantmakers in a funder collaborative called the Fund for Shared Insight (one of us, Fay, serves as the organization’s co-chair) to create tools that will make it simple and affordable to listen to end-users. This is especially important in the nonprofit world where recipients of services and products usually can’t vote with their wallets.

The Fund has developed a tool called Listen for Good (L4G) based on the Net Promoter System, created by Fred in 2003. About 250 nonprofits are now piloting this simple survey to understand what’s working, what isn’t, and what could improve in their work to serve people who are at risk of homelessness, those who use food banks to make ends meet, people with disabilities, and so on. These pilots are proving the importance of listening in fields where power imbalances between funders and beneficiaries can render silent the end user.

Of course, L4G is only one way that nonprofits are gathering feedback. Many use low-cost surveys or programs like Lean Data, which was developed by Acumen, to gather beneficiary input. And, in the field of public health, reflective listening techniques are helping doctors connect with patients and helping patients feel heard. Here are two key benefits we’re seeing gained by gathering this type of feedback.

Helping clients feel included

An evaluation of L4G found that of the organizations that implemented efforts to collect feedback, 63% are making changes to program offerings, 45% are making changes to their operations to be more respectful of client preferences and experiences, and 31% are offering new services.

Such changes, based on feedback, effectively gives beneficiaries a seat at the decision table, a simple way to bolster their belief in self-advocacy.

Take, for example, the reaction of Sharonica, a client at Our House, in Little Rock, Arkansas, which helps families without stable housing to better livelihoods, household savings and, ultimately, independent living. Our House invited a community council of program participants and alumni to sort through the suggestions they received from the survey and they recommended significant changes: adding job-skilling workshops, extending hours for family meals, and increasing security at their transitional housing. Clients appreciated the changes, and some said that they derived the most satisfaction from being part of the process.

“It feels pretty good to know they want our input,” said Sharonica, who served on the council. For the next survey, the council has invited Sharonica’s nine-year-old daughter to join as a representative of the kids’ club at Our House. “It shows they want to hear from everybody,” she said.

Helping staff do their jobs better

Many organizations are making changes to staff-client interactions, as surveys, focus groups, and other feedback tools produce ideas for innovation. Exchanging ideas with clients builds a two-way relationship that Cleveland Clinic’s chief experience officer Dr. Adrienne Boissy says can reduce staff burnout, boost joy, and make serving others sustainable.

The staff at Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services in Houston (ECHOS) began surveying clients in 2017 and what they heard, initially, was sobering: Clients expressed frustration with long waits for help filling out forms to get on county health and public aid and they found staff (themselves stretched and stressed) unfriendly.

Some clients described a visit to ECHOS as an exercise in “chaos.”  Clients would arrive as early as 6:00AM to get in line for 8:00AM office opening, and, after winding through a jumbled queue, might be sent home four hours later with nothing to show for it, because they’d brought the wrong papers. Paula John, an ECHOS client, who suffers from arthritis, said “I cried and cried after my first visit, because I had nothing but my [ongoing, untreated] pain.”

With input from Paula and others, ECHOS made dramatic changes to its work flows, which lowered stress for staff and bolstered attitudes.  Today, staff start their day with a morning meeting where they anticipate challenges to come and divide up work accordingly. Staff welcome clients into a sitting area with snacks, and triage them into working groups according to the services they seek. In these groups, staff counselors called “navigators” now check client papers and explain what’s required. If clients don’t have the correct documents, they can head home right away and bring them back.

“Now I go to ECHOS and it’s like a family,” says Paula. ECHOS executive director Cathy Moore says, “[We] have completely changed since we started soliciting feedback and closing the loop…Staff is happier, clients are happier, donors are happier.”

Committing as an organization to collect, interpret, and respond to client feedback enriches the lives of your employees by putting them in a situation where they can provide not just service, but great service.

Intentional listening dignifies the lives of those heard. There’s a saying in Talmudic wisdom that, “The wise person learns from everybody.” With feasible tools for gathering customer feedback widely available, this too-often missing measure in social enterprise can make us all wiser.




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