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How Feedback Helps Nonprofits and Funders Lift Up Clients as Heroes

  • Key Takeaways
  • Clients, not organizations, should be the heroes of our stories
  • The most important story may only surface when you segment client feedback
  • Clients are best able to tell their own stories when you offer appropriate media
  • Human-centered storytelling emboldens the protagonist on his/her next journey

By Katie Smith Milway and Rick Moyers

Compelling stories can rise or fall on revealing detail. When nonprofits and funders gather that detail from the people they are trying to help, the feedback brings authenticity and means to lift up the client as a protagonist of change.

This article will explore four lessons in effective storytelling that we’ve learned while shepherding a campaign to proliferate client feedback as a measurement norm.

When Betty McCay finished a 27-year prison sentence in California and approached the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) in Oakland for job placement, the last thing she expected to provide was feedback on running the program. “In prison,” she said, “Feedback isn’t necessary. Feedback isn’t sought.”

Eventually she overcame skepticism and responded to a text survey. McCay’s simple idea for improvement, shifting a daily work-signup call from participants out in the field to counselors at their desks, not only struck a chord, but CEO implemented it within a week.  “When you feel that you’re being listened to…that what’s happening with you matters,” she said, “It makes you want to give more.”

Stories like Betty’s are just one reason that Fund for Shared Insight, a funding collaborative that includes nearly 100 funding partners, is investing to make client feedback a third, standard element of nonprofit measurement, alongside program monitoring and third-party evaluation. Since 2016, Shared Insight has helped more than 200 nonprofits implement a simple, anonymous client survey system developed in partnership with SurveyMonkey.

This survey, used by CEO and others, is helping nonprofits surface ideas for course correction and innovation. It’s also surfacing revealing detail about clients’ experiences and aspirations that can add authenticity to nonprofit communications and cast clients as protagonists in narratives of social impact.

Over the past six months, we’ve had an opportunity to tell some of those stories and witness their impact as we worked together on the recent Stanford Social Innovation ReviewPower of Feedback” campaign, a curated editorial series underwritten by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (also a Fund for Shared Insight funding partner). The campaign included more than 20 pieces of original content – a mix of high-quality commentary, webinars, slideshow tutorials, podcasts and videos – published on the SSIR website between late September 2018 and March 2019.

The campaign approach allowed us to extend the content’s reach beyond SSIR’s channels by leveraging the power of our network of partners to help us spread the word. Over the course of the campaign, we worked with communications team members from more than 20 funders and nonprofit networks to create a social media outreach coalition, using the hashtag #FeedbackEmpowers. Our partners disseminated campaign content postings to their contacts, generating close to 700 unique contributors and more than 33 million timeline impressions reaching 2.8 million individuals.

We believe the power and authenticity of the stories, many of which featured client voices, helped generate excitement about sharing them. As further evidence of that, we used human-centered stories to earn near-monthly media placements outside, from in-sector publications such as Chronicle of Philanthropy to mainstream mastheads like Harvard Business Review.

The lessons we learned along the way validated our belief in the power of feedback to inform effective storytelling, as well as to advance equity by giving clients means to influence and even own the tale.

Clients Should Be the Heroes

A trap too many nonprofits and funders can fall into is inadvertently making themselves the heroes of their stories of social impact. It’s easy to do: client stories and client testimony can offer feel-good, “human interest” elements in any funder’s annual report or nonprofit’s fundraising campaign. The narrative typically describes a client’s adverse situation, the organization’s intervention, and the benefits this brings to the client — often in the client’s own words, praising the organization for its help and compassion. While clients may have ideas for significant program improvements or innovation as the end-user of the intervention, those suggestions are typically not the focus of the stories. By asking for their feedback, the client is in a position to advance both program quality and their role as participant-activist. But the only way to know is to ask.

To equip nonprofits and funders to do so, the Power of Feedback campaign infused its content offerings with tools and tactics for gathering client feedback. Primary among them is Listen4Good (L4G), the anonymous survey tool. Shared Insight and Survey Monkey adapted L4G from a widely used commercial tool, the Net Promoter System®, which asks customers to rate on a scale of zero to 10 how likely they would be to recommend a vendor to a friend. Listen4Good asks five core questions:

  1. How likely is it that you would recommend […] to a friend or family member?
  2.   What is […] good at?
  3.   What could […] do better?
  4.   Overall, how well has […] met your needs?
  5.   How often do staff at […] treat you with respect?

The answers to these questions, especially the question “What could […] do better,” allow clients to suggest ways to promulgate change.  Profiling their input and its influence on program delivery and on clients’ own self-advocacy changes the story lens, putting client agency at the center.

For example, Paula John, a client of Houston’s Episcopal Community Health Outreach Services (ECHOS), gave the nonprofit very low marks across its L4G survey.  She found service staff, called “navigators,” unfriendly; wait times interminable; and processes disrespectful – it was possible to wait all day and only then learn you’d brought the wrong documents to sign up for county health care. Her input, and that of others, led to a radical overhaul of ECHOS’ workflow and demeanor.  Today Paula is the “hero,” of ECHOS story of change, featured in video and podcast, where ECHOS ED Cathy Moore says,  “Paula talked about putting a smile on our faces and being, frankly, more customer-service oriented…She [was] right on target.”

Always Look for the Story Within the Story

Designing and executing a way to gather client feedback are the first two steps in surfacing insights for client-centered storytelling.  However, aggregate data can hide a more compelling story within the story, one that can make the case to supporters for funding feedback systems in the first place. Because of this, our Power of Feedback campaign included an audio slide show tutorial for nonprofits and funders to use within their organizations to explain how each of five steps in an effective feedback system helped to surface a truly client-centered narrative.

The three remaining steps include 1) using tools like segmentation to interpret insights along lines of race, gender, age and other salient criteria; 2) crafting an action plan to address those insights; and 3) playing back the plan to those who gave input, thus empowering their self-advocacy. Indeed, even initially anonymous survey respondents, like Paula John, may choose to reveal their identity and encourage others to speak up when they find their ideas took root.

Five Steps of an Effective Feedback System

Second Harvest Food Bank, serving Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in Silicon Valley — a region where affluent high-tech workers live among a quarter of the population at risk of hunger and malnutrition — segmented its L4G survey data and found a problem. Its Vietnamese-speaking clients felt less well-served than others. Follow-up interviews found they struggled to find volunteers who spoke their language, food choices that fit their culture, and sites easy to access.  This story within the story allowed Second Harvest to make strategic changes to its workforce, inventory and logistics, and tell a story to supporters featuring client feedback as a rich resource for quality improvement.

Give Clients a Voice in Your Campaigns 

Feedback offers an opportunity to tell better stories that establish clients as partners in progress, purveyors of insight and stimulus for nonprofit action on those insights. “Here’s how we acted on what we heard from clients and got better as an organization.” Ultimately, it’s more authentic to tell our social impact stories this way and to show the clients as agents of change, rather than victims who are helped.

As we thought about the messages we wanted to proliferate in the Power of Feedback campaign, we realized we had an opportunity to allow clients to tell their own stories, to become an important voice of the campaign, if we introduced appropriate media. A typical in-depth series curates expert viewpoints on many sides of a given social issue. For the campaign, we introduced video and podcast storytelling that allowed those inexperienced at writing commentary to share verbally and visually how being heard and wielding influence changed the social agencies serving them, and changed their own relationship to the agency.

For example, Wilbur Brown, a client of Union Capital Boston, a community rewards program that incents civic participation, explained in a video how his feedback to UCB cofounder Eric Leslie, at the agency’s design phase, put the nonprofit on a path that was more responsive to community.  “A lot of people have great intentions…and sometimes they are off the mark in terms of the needs of the community,” said Brown.  Leslie was considering rewards such as books and exercise equipment in return for attending PTA meetings and town halls.  Brown told him the people he wanted to help needed to pay parking tickets and buy diapers. “People really needed cash in hand,” said Brown, ultimately convincing Leslie to go with a cash rewards program.

The Power of Human-Centered Stories to Spark New Stories

For Brown, his story of influence didn’t end with cash rewards.  His experience of being heard and responded to emboldened him.  Brown next asked to use UCB’s space to reach more men in need.  A victim of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Brown had made an avocation of helping others affected share their emotions and coping skills.  He proposed using an office at UCB for informal counselling sessions.  Leslie agreed, and Brown’s service engaged a segment of UCB’s target population.

In the case of Paula Johns, she transformed from critic to advocate of ECHOS.  She now considers ECHOS navigators close friends and stops by to be part of the welcome wagon for other clients.

Meanwhile, Betty McKay found a job placement with Good Egg organic grocery delivery out of Oakland, the start of a new career with benefits and stock options, and an encouragement to other parolees to seize their second chance.

As each of these clients told their stories to our videographers and podcasters, they told us they felt they had been given a bully pulpit to encourage others to speak up; to spark new stories of client agency; and build new heroes of social impact. This, indeed, may be the ultimate power of using feedback in storytelling.

(Katie Smith Milway, @KatieSMilway, principal of Milway Media and a senior advisor at The Bridgespan Group, curated content for The Power of Feedback Campaign and served as campaign manager.  Rick Moyers, @Rick_Moyers, director of communications at Fund for Shared Insight, collaborated with the campaign on social media and press outreach.)


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