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Incorporating Beneficiary Insights: Community Development Rises To The Challenge

ID-10049926Continuing Markets For Good’s examination of beneficiary feedback in the social sector, Debby Visser notes movement at the infrastructural level of data (the stocks, flows, and sources) in community development work, particularly how data from beneficiaries is being aggregated and incorporated into the work of improving communities and changing lives.

In response to Marny Sumrall’s thoughtful post of December 18th on the challenges of designing for beneficiary feedback, we would be remiss not to direct our beam on the community development arena – one key component of the social sector that is making great strides in using data drawn directly from beneficiaries and constituents to drive decision-making, advance continuous learning, and tell compelling stories of change.

In the landscape of existing efforts to incorporate beneficiary insights into grant-making and programming, practitioners in community-based organizations who are adopting a participatory approach to outcome evaluation are amassing a burgeoning repository of real-time, first-hand feedback from a range of stakeholders, accelerating the flow of quality data and strengthening the sector’s information infrastructure in the process.

Promising examples of the more effective use, aggregation, and sharing of primary level data culled from community resident and program participant feedback are emerging at a steady pace from evaluations of community development initiatives taking place at the local, regional and national levels. I’d like to highlight two complementary undertakings that help to illuminate the state of the field, and underscore the vital importance, and feasibility, of integrating community voice and insights into community development grant-making and programming.

This past December, NeighborWorks America, the congressionally-chartered intermediary with an affiliated network of 235 community-based nonprofit organizations serving more than 4,500 communities nationwide, hosted a day-long symposium on Using Evaluation to Build Evidence and Drive Learning. Presented in partnership with Citi and Enterprise Community Partners, the event brought together more than 250 practitioners, funders, researchers, and policymakers to explore how community development evaluation practice has evolved, and to drill down more deeply with regard to how structural changes – in funding, public policy, and service delivery — facilitate or impede efforts to use evidence from many sources to achieve desired outcomes.

The day’s discussions included an examination of the challenges and opportunities inherent in engaging the end user in the collection, analysis, and sharing of data, with the overarching goal of drawing on voices from the field to expand the base of knowledge about impact. This conversation, led by David Bonbright, of Keystone Accountability, touched on core issues related to organizational capacity, control of data and information flows, transparency, and implementation of results that resonated with practitioners committed to mining beneficiary feedback but hindered by inadequate resources or lack of institutional buy-in to sustain evaluation efforts over the long term.In case studies of evaluation presented throughout the symposium, practitioners, intermediaries, and funders called attention to their collaborations with Success Measures, the social enterprise based at NeighborWorks, that has developed collective impact tools, participatory outcome evaluation services and technology for the community development field.

Created over a decade ago by practitioners who sought an accessible, affordable, credible means of providing community-based organizations, and the funders who support them, with the tools needed to demonstrate social, physical, environmental, and economic change, Success Measures has partnered with more than 400 nonprofits and nearly 30 funders and intermediaries.

Through a well-vetted mixed-methods approach that is anchored in eliciting feedback from community stakeholders via a comprehensive set of quantitative and qualitative indicators and data collection tools that reside on the web-based Success Measures Data System, organizations are generating, sharing, and acting upon data in accord with the state envisioned by Markets for Good. High-quality data is flowing in an environment where “…beneficiaries have a voice, and there is a dynamic culture of continuous learning, development, and innovation.”

As growing numbers of community development groups continue to demonstrate that integrating the beneficiary voice into efforts to define, track, and report on impact is not only doable, but essential, they are helping to improve both the quality and flow of information in the social sector as a whole.