Moment of choice

Last week’s Feedback Summit was, for me at least, a watershed event.

It was the third time our emerging field had come together at an annual gathering. Despite the inevitable consternation that accompanies wide-ranging diversity of expectations, experience and perspectives, I believe that we made two leaps forward over two huge chasms. This post is about one of these. My next post will be about the second, how the clear recognition of how feedback as a craft and practice is necessarily distinct and additive to well established practices like evaluation, monitoring, and public reporting.

In a third, I will try to discern what our deliberations may mean for our movement’s funding strategy. On the basis of the panels at the summit, it might be harder to #shiftthepower here than in the other dimensions of our work.

I think we were collectively brave last week. And dogged, as we have to be. When a growing number of powerful people are acting to establish our species beyond earth, the signal is pretty clear just how extremely urgent it is that we stop with the “nice, nice”, and go deep.

Before and throughout the conference our curator-in-chief Dennis Whittle commendably put the choices we face in a set of questions: “Is the goal simply to improve service delivery or to change what we deliver and who decides? Is it incremental or fundamental? Is it about getting ‘input’ or is it about shifting the power? Is it about evolution or revolution?”

From what I heard and saw at the summit, I think we made that clear choice. We said that feedback is about shifting power. We said that we must stop seeing those we serve as deficits, and begin from a point of people’s assets and agency. We said that feedback loops were about more authentic conversations.

We are mostly shop-worn professionals, so we compartmentalize the “rage” that we feel at the fact that most organizations don’t do this. Jo Wells of Blagrave Trust pointed us to an antidote to our complacency when she urged us to infuse our movement with young people, “who have less at stake” in the present order, and more at stake in a better future.

There is, however, an upside to being shop-worn professionals. We know that incremental can build to fundamental, that evolution can tip into revolution. Steve Goodall, the retired CEO of JD Power & Associates, told us the apposite story of how JD Power & Associates introduced in the late 1960s the then new idea of “voice of the customer” in a gradual process that over time fundamentally transformed several industries, starting with car manufacturing in the USA.

All this to say that together we got a lot out into the room last week – our “movement-hood”, the rage, the professional sense of emerging craft, and the clear sense of our goal. It all came together in the call for a system re-set (notice how my professional persona asserts itself to avoid saying “revolution”). So let me take a stab at our goal statement.

We, collectively, as a movement to transform social change practice, seek a social system re-set around three simple questions: What do people want? Are we helping them get it? If not, how can we help them get it?

This formulation begs a question that one of our brilliant plenary session facilitators, Bryan Simmons of Arcus Foundation, put to us with a mischievous twinkle: “Does that mean you have to do what they tell you?” Are we going all-in on, “the customer is always right”.

Well, that’s where the craft comes in, and it takes us to the heart of what we mean by Constituent Voice. But now I am treading on my next blog.

In closing, I want to suggest that in this choice that we have  a ready-made theme for next year’s summit. Why don’t we put our movement in the hot seat? Some or all of us could recruit “feedback providers”, whose role at the summit would be to guide and advise us “feedback receivers” on how they experience feedback. Together we could develop a kind of statement of “good feedback practices”. Maybe we could get Fagan Harris of Baltimore Corps to be our MC who relayed a story which was a microcosm for this kind of summit. For those not there, Fagan told us of a dinner meeting at his house where he hoped to get support from community activists for his ideas for Baltimore Corps. You have to hear him tell it, but basically it was a roller coaster of a dinner where for the first two courses they ripped up his game plan. But it ended well over dessert when they rolled up their sleeves and pitched in to fix it.

Read more about the Feedback Summit from Marc Gunther on his Nonprofit Chronicles.

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