Listen. Act. Learn. Repeat. How Feedback Can Drive Social Impact

Submitted on Mon, 1/7/2013 - 7:51am
Any producer or service deliverer has to be prepared to experience their own product or service as a consumer might.

There’s a dictum in software development attributed to Microsoft that any organization developing a product or service needs to eat their own dog food. Simply put, it means that any producer or service deliverer has to be prepared to experience the product or service as a consumer might.

What’s remarkable about this guidance is that it actually describes a pretty unnatural act: a human being eating something expressly not designed for their palate. But the recommendation is made because humans buy dog food, not dogs.

So, what it's really saying is that it's worth taking extraordinary measures to close that feedback loop—because if the purchaser remains in the dark about the quality of what they are buying, better dog food will never be made.

There is a related problem in philanthropy. Someone is essentially paying for a product or service to be delivered to one or more recipients other than themselves when they make a donation. And the consumer is rarely in a position to suggest improvements in the product or service if they don’t like it because they can’t as easily deprive the organization of the revenue. They might walk away from the provider, even perhaps choosing to go without, but it may take a long time for that message to percolate back to the payer.

At GlobalGiving, we had an inkling about how long it took that flywheel to get moving when we worked with a youth sports nonprofit in Kenya called SACRENA. They had been on the GlobalGiving site reporting on and off on their progress when we started soliciting feedback from nonprofit customers. Our first attempt was as basic as printing up bumper stickers that amounted to “1-800-How’s my driving?”; we just sent GlobalGiving staff to the ground and they let beneficiaries know we wanted to hear from them.

Nothing happened for a long time. Then we got a couple of visitors giving mixed feedback about a project focused on youth development through sport. Then a couple of young people who had been participating in the soccer program started writing to us to let us know they liked the soccer games but they weren’t sure what it was adding up to. As luck would have it, we had an evaluator in the field in Kenya at the time—so we asked her to drop by. Her conclusion: no misuse of funds or active mismanagement, but the leader of the program could be more open about what he was trying to accomplish by bringing kids together in soccer games, and the finances could be more tightly managed. We gave that feedback to the project leader, as well as to the donors to that project.

We sat back and waited after that last step. We weren’t sure what donors would think. Would they all invoke the GlobalGiving Guarantee and get on our case for letting an organization like SACRENA seek funds on GlobalGiving?

To our surprise everyone supported keeping the project on our site. In addition, a donor who happened to be a professor in Oregon wrote in to say he had some grad students who were looking for an organizational development project, maybe they could go out to SACRENA over the summer. The students went, gave financial advice to the leader, talked some more to the kids, took them around to visit other youth sports programs in the area to give them ideas about what could be done at SACRENA, and went home.

We heard little for a while after that, but several months later were informed that the kids had left SACRENA and had chosen to start up another sports program in the vicinity with support from another organization that they had visited with the grad students.

We were stunned. We’d hardly expected this drastic a turn of events—we actually thought perhaps the project leader would improve a little, we would send in a team and they would note progress, we’d report back to donors. Instead we ended up closing this project down.

What we’ve embarked on since is a storytelling project in which we have gathered over 40,000 stories from members of the community in selected areas in Kenya and Tanzania. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and in collaboration with Cognitive Edge and Irene Guijt, GlobalGiving have expanded on a promising 2010 Kenya pilot which gathered 2,700 usable stories from individuals primarily in Nairobi and the Rift Valley. In 2011, we expanded the work in Kenya and initiated the Storytelling Project in Uganda and Tanzania.

GlobalGiving is providing a toolkit that helps its partner organizations initiate storytelling projects on their own, and has embedded the SenseMaker® methodology from Cognitive Edge into its core platform. Resulting information is being shared widely online and in other platforms such as the Development Gateway’s AidData mapping system, designed to provide intelligence about how development efforts match community needs.

Here is an actual story collected from young man in Nairobi in May of 2010:

Creating security. Many people leaving in slums have lived in fear due to lack of peace and lack of criminal cases many have been raped but to day  we can have something to enjoy and smile at although there is still little to be said to be add on it. There is a certain group in our community called “vijana amani pamoja” (VAP) who have really provided security among the community they have held different workshop educating people to leave in peace and respect each others property they have also advise the youths to involve in various money generating activities which will keep them busy and get money to cater for their instead of stealing other people property.

Imagine collecting thousands of stories like the one above from citizens, community organizers, and NGO staff about what really matters to them.

Or perhaps your context is one that includes district water engineers, water policy makers, municipal governments, and water users. Now imagine looking through a prism at these stories to find patterns and compare and contrast patterns between organizations, themes, geographic areas, stakeholders, age groups, and more. And imagine getting a continuous flow of stories that allows you to see needs as they emerge and change as they manifest.

SenseMaker® is a way of thinking and going about collecting, analysing, debating, and sharing large numbers of stories on a continuous basis. It’s exciting to think of what leverage we might get by providing this sort of feedback to the thousands of organizations we work with worldwide so they can get ever smarter about how they allocate their resources. And donors in turn can play a catalytic role as they also start allocating their funding differently.

But the key here we believe—and our challenge for the next five years—is to ensure that this information is presented in a way that maximizes the likelihood that community leaders, donors, and everyone else in the broader social sector can actually act on it. Information abounds—but too often is not acted on.

Narrowing the gap between knowing and doing is the real key to closing the feedback loop. In the meantime though, we’ll keep eating the dog food.

Hear more from Mari at her session at the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference, "Listen. Act. Learn. Repeat. How Feedback is Driving Social Impact".

Mari co-founded GlobalGiving with Dennis Whittle, and currently leads the organization. In 2011, Mari was named one of Foreign Policy's top 100 Global Thinkers for "crowdsourcing worldsaving." Before GlobalGiving, she worked at the World Bank where she managed and created some of the Bank's most innovative projects including the first ever Innovation and Development Marketplaces, and the first series of strategic forums with the World Bank's president and senior management. Mari also designed a range of investment projects in the Russia reform program, including a residential energy efficiency project, structural adjustment loans, and legal reform project. She currently serves as chair of the board of the Global Business School Network and on the board of Guidestar US. In addition to her native Japanese, Mari also speaks Russian, Italian, and French. She has an undergraduate degree in history from Harvard University and did graduate work in Russian and Japanese history and politics at Harvard and Georgetown Universities. Mari also completed the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School.