Coming through denial

This month’s annual Feedback Summit in Washington DC has been chronicled by journalist Marc Gunther as the moment where we recognized that we have arrived, and asked first order questions.  In my blog post last week I said that I thought we had, collectively, set our intention for fundamental transformation of how we organize to do good in the world. This week, I want to say something about the first stage of this transformation process. Like Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s famous five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – our first stage is denial.

Denial is where most of us are with respect to our failure to listen and respond effectively to those who are meant to benefit from our work. Feedback Labs co-founder and CEO Dennis Whittle and I discussed the relatively scant empirical evidence on this in a blog in 2014.  We put a positive spin on it, highlighting that 95% nonprofits say they collect feedback and 61% say they act on it. But we also noted that when these claims are examined closely they fall apart. The fact is that there are only a handful of nonprofits that have a practice and culture that would meet the ambition that we have for our movement. But, and this is the good news, it would not take much to move from denial to action.

Please let me tell a story to illustrate just how close we are to collective, wide-scale action for Constituent Voice. A decade ago I conducted a series of focus groups across the United States as part of an action research project to understand the feedback practices at human services organizations, and particularly why feedback did not seem to generate significant value for them. The participants were the top leaders of major human services organizations, often operating at a state level, all with annual budgets of upwards of US$25million, and many thousands of service users. By the third focus group I had a formula that I stayed with. After thanking them for giving two-hours to our research, I defined what we meant by feedback, and through the discussion asked three framing questions.

Do you collect feedback? The answer was unanimously yes. We spent a quite a few minutes discussing how they did it, running through surveys and focus groups and hot lines and complaints procedures.

What value do you get from feedback? The answer here was unanimously, “not much.” Since everyone agreed that service user views were important, this turned out to be a hot discussion. The general view was that customer satisfaction type research just didn’t work in human services the way they seemed to in the world of consumer choice. We wrote this up at length in the  white paper that we produced for the project, including some pointers for method innovation and a case for benchmarking.

Towards the end of the meeting I asked the third and what turned out to be the right question: Do you go back to service users and report on the feedback and discuss how you to make it more useful? At every focus group the same thing happened. Every head around the table dropped in recognition. They had not. And they realized, instantly, that they were failing their values, their missions, and their users in doing so. They had seen feedback as a research exercise. In that instant they understood feedback is not research, but engagement. It was an opportunity to have more authentic relationships with those they existed to serve. And they had missed it.

You know what happened next? That’s right, nothing. Our action research did not prove to the be tipping point in a shift to Constituent Voice practices across all nonprofits.

Ten years on, we can see real progress. We now have funders banding together to support it when before there were none. There are a handful of organizations that are our super stars, like Center for Employment Opportunities and LIFT.  Most importantly, we have in Feedback Labs our “hub of all things feedback”, as Marc Gunther dubbed it.

We founded Feedback Labs around two core ideas. One was the idea that our “what” is not just feedback, but feedback loops; in other words, it is engagement and not research (though we do generate good quality evidence). The other is Dennis Whittle’s system re-set button in the form of three questions: Are people getting what they actually want? Are we helping them get it? If not, how can we help them get it?

But we do not yet see widescale uptake. My gut tells me that collectively nonprofit sector organizations – implementers and funders – are nearing that moment of recognition that they are in denial, and that they have everything they need to move on, and begin to act.

For those reading closely, in my next blog I will do what I said I was going to – say more about the craft and tools of feedback, and answer the question Bryan Simmons of Arcus Foundation, asked us at the Summit: “Does that mean you have to do what they tell you?”

3 thoughts on “Coming through denial

  • Thank you for these blogs from the Summit… 1) Our hubris (that of international development folks, at least) astonishes me. You asked, “Do you go back to service users and report on the feedback and discuss how you to make it more useful?” During a debrief session to our partners and participants (which I mandate in ValuingVoices’ work) of the results of one of the post-project evaluations 3 years after closure of the $60 mil development project in southern Africa, an elderly man stood up. He said he had been working for government for 60 years and had never had anyone come back to tell them evaluation results, much less do a post project evaluation of sustained and emerging impacts. He asked for $ for them to do these themselves as he was a district official and wanted to do this elsewhere. 2) Feedback on sustained impacts can threaten or deeply nourish our industry. Many fear hearing less than positive results, yet how else can we improve? Yes, we need a revolution that puts participant and partner voices in the lead of their own development, and our only helping support their journey, not them fulfilling our objectives… Thanks for your leadership, David and Keystone. Jindra

    • Dear Jindra, thank you for this arresting illustration of a core development in “business as usual” in development. I never cease to be amazed that we make so many demands on those we mean to help, but can’t be bothered to check properly to see how our demands land. By the way, it appears that we are are not the only well-meaning professionals that fall prey to this self-conceit. I am reading On The Frontline by the great photojournalist Susan Meiselas. In it she describes her all-too-rare rigor of “closing the loop” with the subjects of her photos. For Meiselas, photography is not extractive but conversational. Beautiful!

  • David, exactly… That’s why I loved Anderson/ Brown’s Time to Listen — folks are so grateful for our help BUT they want to be involved, to be part of how it’s designed and done… for me that’s what sustainability is, not the self-conceit of we’ve got the answer for them, now they just need to get on and do it, and we’ll measure how well they fulfilled our plans :). Instead, they should evaluate us! I will pick up the book- interesting.
    A question for you – are you finding the private sector more open to listening to their clients (were they able to make that conceptual leap better than our development professionals peers? 🙂 Look forward to hearing your view….

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