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Can we make feedback the expected thing?

Edd Fry, Listening Fund Project Manager gives his thoughts on feedback practice within organisations.

In early October, I was in Washington D.C. to attend the Feedback Summit, a two-day global gathering of funders and not-for-profit organisations.  We were all there, above a converted Greyhound bus depot, to try and answer one question: how can we make feedback an expected part of good practice?

Blagrave Trust’s commitment to integrating feedback from partner charities and young people is long-standing and led to our development of the Listening Fund, along with three other funders, which I manage. The Fund aims to support social sector organisations to improve their ability to listen and respond to the young people they serve.

Recently we brought all Blagrave partners together to share practice and connect. Our theme was how to ensure that accountability to young people goes far beyond just the ability for young people to direct and influence the services they receive (though this is important) but – as emphasised in the findings of the Inquiry for Civil Society – the need to challenge ourselves and civil society to be brave enough to support young people to hold those in power to account for themselves. Watch our video here.

The idea of gathering feedback from individuals who use services is not new; the Feedback Summit itself is in its fourth year and many organisations have been using feedback practices for considerably longer than that.  However, it remains in the eyes of many a ‘nice-to-have’, a supplement to existing work and services, and is rarely included in budgets, job descriptions or staff objectives.

Over the course of the two days, people from around the world shared their thoughts and opinions on what it would take to change that and make feedback the norm.  Trying to capture all that expertise and enthusiasm in a blog is impossible, but three main themes stood out in the most compelling answers: evidence, funding and tools.

Evidence

There are many reasons why organisations might decide that feedback is important, including wishing to involve an individual about decisions which will affect them; hoping to increase an individual’s skills and self-confidence by giving them a meaningful platform; and believing that engaging with service users will lead to improvements in the design and quality of that service.  For most organisations, their interest in developing feedback practices is a combination of all three.

To help make feedback the expected thing, we need to be able to demonstrate – to funders and those involved in delivery – that feedback can have a demonstrable impact on these ambitions.  Feedback practice needs to be linked to outcomes, which requires organisations using feedback to be clear about what they want feedback to help them achieve, and then measure how successful it has been in realising that goal.  NPC have just released a paper going into much more detail on these ideas and it can be read here.

Funding

Inevitably, collecting this evidence costs money and at the Feedback Summit funders were challenged to provide more resources for organisations to try different feedback approaches, and to create a culture where experimentation was encouraged and the risk of failure was accepted.

However, it was also clear to attendees that if we want to make feedback the expected thing across the sector, project funding isn’t sufficient.  Organisations need to include feedback in their core work and thus their core costs, and funders need to move towards  funding these core costs.  This is part of a growing movement towards unrestricted grant making, which is supported by reports such as this produced by the Weingart Foundation and more recently this paper on trust-based philanthropy from the Whitman Institute.

Tools

Finally, many attendees talked about a need for accessible tools.  Providing a low-cost, low-effort entry point was seen as essential to spread the feedback ‘movement’.  Properly designed, such tools would appeal to senior management who might be anxious about budgets, to staff who are already busy delivering existing services, and to small organisations who have limited resources.

At present, there are few tools available to organisations interested in developing their feedback practice.  Feedback Labs have a series of blogs on ‘Feedback Fundamentals’, but there is precious little in terms of free or low-cost support and guidance to not-for-profit organisations.  Some of the most experienced players in this space have recognised this, such as Keystone Accountability, and we may see some developments soon.

In addition to the in-depth discussion of how to increase the use of feedback, there were also interesting sessions on what funders are doing to listen to beneficiaries (including the line: ‘don’t ask if you won’t then commit resources!’); how the Polaris Project is engaging with those who have related experience as paid consultants; and how the collaborative filtering technology used by Netflix and Amazon, amongst others, is being applied to the not-for-profit sector.

For someone involved with The Listening Fund, it was a fascinating couple of days.  Our challenge is to build on these discussions and to use the current interest in feedback and user voice to make a permanent power shift, creating a more equal society for the young people with whom we work.  With a Scotland-focused version of The Listening Fund launching in 2019, momentum is building and we are excited about where the next year might take us.