Three years ago, Habitat for Humanity decided to test the power of technology to increase resident engagement in neighborhoods we serve. With a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight, we launched a pilot project with 12 Habitat organizations across the country to determine whether using feedback loops increases participation by community residents in choosing strategies and projects to promote their “community voice” and aspirational goals.
At Habitat, adapting a feedback loop methodology from Feedback Labs—a systematized approach to collecting and analyzing data and sharing back findings with community residents—has produced clear outcomes and made the case for scaling up this initiative.
To start, we interviewed Habitat staff to see if the residents they partner with prefer online, mobile, paper, or some other medium of engagement. Then we created a multi-medium method for data collection and the ability to share real-time feedback to hear directly from the community, so local Habitat organizations could discuss and strategize on their next steps.
The end result has been a widening of communication channels for our nonprofit headquarters to hear directly from feet-on-the-street community activists.
What our feedback loops told us about engaging our community
The less burden on people taking surveys, the better.
One Habitat staff member noticed many people in her neighborhood had challenges with the online survey. When she realized this, she stopped asking them to take the survey online and took it to them face-to-face. While academics might cite how many changes this shifting approach would make to the data, from a community organizer’s stance, the move created a better sense of trust with neighbors.
Meet people where they’re meeting.
Some local organizations didn’t know why their survey response rate was low. But when they decided to go out in the community, response rates went up. Also, once the community members got involved with Habitat, they stepped up their civic engagement in general. In Central Berkshire, Massachusetts, for example, residents who became active with Habitat and housing issues later took leadership roles in local transportation initiatives.
Make it fun.
In Dupage, Illinois, the local Habitat used the community’s BBQ and Resource Fair as an occasion to share results and hear feedback from local residents.
Make it personal.
People conducting surveys can be misinterpreted as dry. With feedback loops, we used our strength in housing and community outreach to connect neighbors, sometimes resulting in life-changing experiences.
Take Demita in Springfield, Missouri. Demita and other community leaders agreed to host a neighborhood event to clean alleys and to inspire homeowners to spruce up their yards. A few days before their “Rally in the Alley” day, Demita decided to introduce herself to residents along her alley and generate face-to-face enthusiasm for the event.
At one door, she met Kathy, a homeowner whose tailored front yard held potted plants and lawn art but whose backyard was overrun with waist-high grass. Kathy explained that she had been feeling hopeless since her lawn mower broke, and caring for her disabled husband left her no time to do anything about it. When Demita told others of Kathy’s plight, the next door neighbor came over and cut the lawn right away. It was Kathy’s first time meeting him, and in expressing thanks, she said, “This is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.”
For Demita, this new relationship alone made the community building effort a success.
Don’t let the medium control the conversation.
It’s easier to pick a sustainable technology that already supports human behavior rather than forcing human behavior to adapt to technology. Feedback from the pilot sites showed that some people found the online survey technology to be too prescriptive while others preferred it.
Also, there are residents in some neighborhoods who do not use smartphones and have no Wi-Fi at all. Low-tech methods should be considered as legitimate for immediate response feedback.
In each of the pilot communities, Habitat saw improvement in community involvement and resident engagement. Sometimes this manifested as a statistical increase in attendance at meetings and participation in projects. For example, in Greater Lowell, Massachusetts, only 29 resident leaders had partnered in neighborhood efforts before the pilot. Since October 2016, the number has grown to 56 participating in the first community conversation and 62 in the second—an impressive increase of 70%, or 39 residents, participating in both.
Over the past 40 years, Habitat for Humanity has worked with people around the globe to help families achieve the strength, stability and self-reliance they need to build better lives for themselves. The most important element of our mission is the partnership between Habitat and the homeowner, and we continuously seek to keep homeowners and their input at the center of what we do.
Each of the 12 feedback loop pilot projects shows a positive reflection of outreach in Habitat organizations nationwide, where our mission is guided by the aspirations of the communities we serve. Using feedback loops helps us energize communities and chart our progress in sustaining and advancing Habitat’s mission in partnership with donors, volunteers, and homeowners.
Collecting shared metrics has strengthened the evaluation of community engagement and helped us to continuously refine programs, projects, or systems. Our next step is to explore the growth and sustainability of feedback loops, which can change the dynamic between community residents and the people and agencies that partner with them.