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Stimulating Demand For Constituent Feedback


Obviously, this is not a demand curve. (left) It could be seen as a “need” curve. David Bonbright takes us here, looking underneath supply and demand at the current state of constituent feedback and the need to increase and sustain the market conditions that can, in turn, generate the  feedback we need for high-quality programming and impact.

Reading the recent contributions on the theme of “Beneficiary Feedback” is both enlivening and sobering. In his summative post our curator, Eric Henderson, rightly highlights the “encouraging efforts” to cultivate feedback for greater impact. But I am also mindful of how rare these efforts are, and how limited the resources are to support them.

What we have today are a few inspiring pioneers who are getting on with it against the odds, and without much support. There is a groundswell of awareness about the importance of feedback, a few early pioneering and shining examples, but no commensurate follow through.*

If we want action – organizations listening and responding to their constituents in a way that raises performance and enhances impacts – we need to stimulate the demand for feedback and provide the professional support infrastructure to meet that demand. This raises a couple of important strategic questions in the field of what is coming to be known as Constituent Voice. How do we get an appropriate infrastructure for a nuanced and rapid scale-up of Constituent Voice and what would it look like?

Perhaps the answers to these questions are to be found in two familiar analogues: Social Entrepreneurship and Customer Satisfaction.

I remember a conversation I had nearly thirty years ago with Bill Drayton, the father of the modern Social Entrepreneurship movement. In the mid 1980s, social entrepreneurship was a shiny new idea and Ashoka was the only organization of its kind. In those days, Bill described Ashoka as the world’s first “venture support” firm for social entrepreneurs. Today, Ashoka is the leading star in a vibrant constellation of financial, educational, service, and research organizations supporting social innovators.

The case of Customer Satisfaction is even more to the point since it has done for businesses what Constituent Voice aspires to do for social purpose organizations. Customer Satisfaction as a business practice began in the 1960s and has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry that enables millions of companies to listen and respond, effectively and profitably, to their customers. Nurturing customer loyalty is a well-developed craft that is taught in business schools and debated in a vibrant professional literature (two of my favourite books are The Ultimate Question 2.0 and Satisfaction: How Every Great Company Listens to the Voice of the Customer). There are formal professional qualifications, and a steady stream of conferences and professional associations. Consumers can compare user ratings on virtually any product, for free.

If this is an indication of what we need to get full value from listening to beneficiaries, then who is going to pay for it? Down the road, the answer has to be the organizations seeking and using feedback. But for our sector, at least during the early and growth stages, this means that funders will have to play a leadership role. They can do this in three ways:

  • First, they can stimulate the demand for feedback by asking grantees and investees to report on what their primary constituents think about their work along the lines of the template sketched out below.
  • Second, they can make sure they provide adequate financial support required to collect and use this feedback. At little or no extra cost they can transform dry formal evaluations into dynamic feedback-based dialogues for learning, improving and relationship building. (Every survey on the subject shows funders typically do not pay for the full costs of the evaluative requirements they impose.)
  • Third, they can invest in the development of the wider infrastructure of support for Constituent Voice.

By providing a chronicle of the emergence of Constituent Voice practices, the Markets for Good initiative is itself a high-level example of this support infrastructure. With new communications technologies dramatically reducing the cost and effort required to collect feedback, now is the moment to invest in Constituent Voice methodology, tools, data infrastructure and services.

Perhaps the most important contribution to date comes from Charity Navigator, the world’s largest charity rater. Just last month it released a new version of its rating model, Results Reporting, which incorporates Constituent Voice at its heart. In the future, U.S. charities will be rated according to their answers to the following six questions.

  1. Does the charity publish feedback data from its primary constituents?
  2. Does the published feedback data include an explanation of how likely it is to be representative of all primary constituents?
  3. Does the data include an explanation of why the organization believes the feedback is frank and honest?
  4. Is that data presented in a way that shows changes over time going back at least one year?
  5. Does the data include questions that speak to the organization’s effectiveness?
  6. Does the organization report back to its primary constituents what it heard from them?

Consider how transformative it would be if most organizations could answer each of those questions in the affirmative.

So I guess the war of feelings in my breast can quiet down. Yes, we are at the start of a long and challenging journey. But the value proposition is clear, and we have more friends than we imagined accompanying us along the way.

*For a very recent article capturing the state of the field, see, Listening to Those Who Matter Most, the Beneficiariesin the Spring 2013 issue of SSIR.