Thou shalt not…only do what you are told

Kai Hopkins

Kai Hopkins

Like it or not, those with the cash set the agenda. They influence where we work and what we focus on. That is not to say they choose the wrong things or that they don’t take others’ views into consideration, but never the less, they choose. And the rest of us respond. It also affects how we measure and monitor our work, reporting on the things donors want us to report on.

This can be a pain, especially if each and every donor wants different information in different formats. Donors typically want to know about outputs – how many people attended training or how many items were distributed. Slowly, however, the agenda is changing, with more and more donors asking (and by ‘asking’ I really mean ‘demanding’) for evidence of effective listening to those we aim to help.

For an organization working to support effective feedback loops, this is potentially revolutionary. We sometimes struggle to create the right mix of incentives to encourage organizations to harness feedback, especially from the people they serve. We provide normative arguments (‘this is the right thing to do’), the business case (‘this is the bright thing to do’) and even the tools with which to do it but without donor pressure it can be hard to leverage change.

However, there is danger in relying on this new commandment from up high – it risks detracting from the real value of systematic listening, creating a tick-box exercise to appease an outside audience rather than a valuable internal tool to drive program quality. Feedback systems should not, like other donor-led reporting be reduced to outputs – is there a complaints system? – but judged on whether they are systematic, inclusive and ultimately result in improvements. Ground Truth’s work on the Core Humanitarian Standard with Save the Children and Danish Church Aid is a good example of moving beyond looking at feedback systems as outputs and instead measuring their effectiveness.

Without funder pressure nothing changes in the development and humanitarian sectors. Pressure to collect feedback must be matched by a strong internal recognition of the value that systematic feedback can bring.

I guess it is rather; thou shalt not do what you are told because you are told but because you want to do it anyway.

An interesting example which illustrates this in more detail is this recent article I wrote, with the Centre for Youth Impact, about funder pressures to collect evidence of impact. I suggest that as donor demand for impact evidence increases, effective feedback systems are a great way to demonstrate results. Moreover, I argue that while the impetus to listen to constituents may come from funder pressure, the real value is in its capacity to deliver on-going program improvements.

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