Constituent feedback – the revolution is coming

For a decade one of my standard introductions to our work has been, “The voices of those meant to benefit from our work is the most neglected important piece of the impact measurement puzzle. Not the only important piece, but the most neglected important piece.” After that past three weeks, I may have to change that intro to, “Constituent Voice – or constituent feedback – is the coming thing in the impact space.” I am thrilled and on edge in equal measure. Consider the evidence.

Exhibit 1: The Obama White House

white-house-754766_1280In its final months, the Obama Administration seems to be shifting from heavy evaluation models to a lighter touch approach to gathering evidence for social change. Could a revolution be brewing in the White House? On 18 October 75 representatives from government, private foundations, non-governmental organizations, academia, and the corporate sector met at the White House for a workshop on data driven feedback loops, co-convened by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and The Fund for Shared Insight. After doubling down on sluggish social science heavy evaluation models for seven years – including in its signature Social Innovation Fund – now the administration is putting a marker down for a light touch, real time, dialogic alternative approach to using evidence to improve social results. This is exciting! But, ex post impact studies fit well with bureaucratic public sector behemoths. Not so Constituent Voice, which requires agile organizations that course correct frequently through dialogue with those they serve, shifting power from implementing organizations to the people meant to benefit from their programs. Not for nothing did Fund for Shared Insight co-chair, Ford Foundation Vice President Hilary Pennington call this a ‘revolution’. From the rarefied heights of the White House one could clearly see a long hard slog of transforming organizational cultures if this revolution is to fulfil its promise. Read more about the event on the White House blog.

Exhibit 2: IMPCON and the annual conference of the American Evaluation Association

Measurement discontents and mainstream evaluators came together at IMPCON to discuss how evaluation practice must dramatically change to be relevant to social impact practitioners. The event was designed by the innovative evaluation team at the Rockefeller Foundation, Social Value International and the AEA to be a two-day lead in to the AEA’s annual conference (October 24-29). IMPCON, as it was dubbed, was advertised as a push to bring better impact measurement to the fast-growing impact investing space. But what it amounted to was a powerful case for the irrelevance of mainstream evaluation practice, and the opportunity to move to real-time, collective, dialogic ways to understand and act on evidence to improve social results. Keynote speaker John Tamihere, a Mauri leader, delivered an eloquent and searing indictment of the evaluation profession, pointing to his preferred alternative approach that combined social value measurement and collective impact. You could have heard a pin drop in the room when Tris Lumley of New Philanthropy Capital unpacked, with eloquent British reserve, his deepening feelings of inauthenticity in the impact evaluation conversation. Here’s my IMPCON talk, ‘A Spy in the House of Love‘.

Exhibit 3: Fund for Shared Insight grantee gatheringfund-for-shared-insight-2

On October 25, the biggest funder of constituent feedback, Shared Insight, brought together 90 funders, grantees, and partners for a packed 12-hours of learning and exchange. Launched in 2014, the Fund has grown from its original 7 founder foundations to some 37. With over US$20 million, it operates several grant work streams with a three-way focus on research, foundation openness, and constituent feedback. It operates its own program of technical support to grantees, Listen for Good. When you consider that the rest of dedicated support infrastructure for Constituent Voice is probably less than $5 million, this makes Shared Insight the dominant actor in the ‘feedback revolution’. Read more from the fund here.

lfs-banner-2160pxExhibits 4 & 5: The Feedback Labs Feedback 2016 Summits in Washington and London

Formed in 2013 by a few organizations deeply committed to effective feedback loops as a transformative social change tool, Feedback Labs has skilfully rolled out a set of learning and exchange activities in the US and London. Flagship annual events were held on October 26-27 in Washington DC and November 1 in London, together bringing together 250 diverse social change practitioners to start to come to grips with the promise of effective feedback loops. Highlights of the events include presentations by the Mayday Trust and Integrity Action.

fullsizerender-1Especially at these last three gatherings of Shared Insight and Feedback Labs I had the tangible feeling of something new and distinctive coming into view. It is very young. Appropriately, we spend a lot of time clarifying and defining what we mean by constituent feedback. But we are also sharing stories of practice, refining methodology, and building tools. It is unmistakable, a new craft is being born.

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