Valerie Threlfall leads Listen4Good, Fund for Shared Insight’s signature capacity building program. As the founding director of Listen4Good, Valerie led the initial design of the offering and now oversees a product and program team that supports more than 550 organizations across the United States. She is also Principal of Ekouté Consulting, which advances the use of feedback to inform strategy and measurement efforts for social-sector organizations.
Impact Opportunity spoke with Valerie about her path to supporting nonprofit organizations in their listening and feedback efforts, along with the “Impact Opportunity” moments in her career.
I arrived at my current role as Managing Director at Listen4Good through some twists and turns. I started in the nonprofit sector and then went to graduate school, where I received a business and a policy degree. Coming out of grad school, my mother was very ill, so I made some shifts. Instead of going into management consulting, I ended up working for a small startup company. I had an excellent opportunity to hone my business training there but also was able to spend time with my terminally ill mother.
I was the 10th person hired at this small biotech start-up. I stayed at that organization for five years and was part of the small core business team that scaled the organization. We grew from 10 people to 150 people and eventually went public. That experience helped me realize that I thrive in startup spaces.
After that, I decided I wanted to come back to the social sector. I had an opportunity to join the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). At the time, CEP had an idea on a piece of paper called the "student voice initiative."
It was a project sponsored by the Gates Foundation intended to elevate student voice as a key constituency for foundations and others to listen to. I was interested in data and the information people use to measure their impact, and CEP gave me exposure to feedback and measurement. I ended up taking the core of the student voice initiative idea and becoming the founding director of a project called YouthTruth on behalf of CEP. YouthTruth was about elevating student feedback as a source of insight in the education sector.
At YouthTruth, we created feedback systems that allowed young people to comment on what was and was not working in their schools. We then shared that feedback with schools, school districts, and funders. My passion for feedback came up as an opportunity to really bring a different lens to how we think about impact, measurement, and engagement. I scaled YouthTruth for four years, then left and became an independent consultant when my daughter was born.
Some of the individuals involved in Youth Truth were also involved in Fund for Shared Insight. The Fund for Shared Insight provided me with an opportunity to design something again from the ground up, so I joined the Fund for Shared Insight in 2015 as a consultant to develop Listen4Good on their behalf. And here we are, 550 organizations later.
What I love about this work is it’s so blended. Feedback touches so many aspects of an organization, and these skills and experiences enable you to speak to the moral reasons to conduct listening, and to also consider what listening can do for measurement and learning and the culture within an organization.
For me, it’s been important to have direct nonprofit experience so that you understand that frontline experience—there is no substitute for it.
However, in this field, you will encounter skeptics. It’s important to have skills that allow you to challenge that skepticism. Training around quantitative and qualitative measurement in the social impact sector has also subsequently been an important skill.
First, I think about Youth Truth, because it gave me the feedback bug. I'm incredibly proud of that work and that organization.
When I was with YouthTruth, I remember standing in a school auditorium with about 300 kids, and we asked them to do some voting to showing them the power of feedback. Then, the students got up and started talking about their school experiences. I realized that we had created a unique and powerful moment for the youth in that school, who often didn’t have a voice. I thought, "Wow, look at what feedback has done and its potential."
When I look at Listen4Good, it’s incredibly meaningful to be able to inform the work of so many direct service organizations. I'm proud of how many organizations we've been able to serve. A year after people leave Listen4Good, at least 73% are still collecting feedback one year later – which speaks to the impact we are having. I'm excited to bring our resources, tools, and supports to the broader sector and ultimately help change the norms and practices of the social sector.
I recently listened to Brené Brown's podcast Unlocking Us. One interview in the podcast stood out for me: the interview with Laverne Cox, the actress from Orange is the New Black, which explored intersectionality and identity. Unlocking Us interviews have given me many seeds for thought, and I listen to it and think about it often.
I'm about to start reading We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina Love, a professor at the University of Georgia. Her book is about abolitionist teaching and what it means to be an abolitionist, and not just an ally, in the world of racial equity. I find her thinking and approach to be powerful. Finally, I just finished a book called Such a Fun Age by Kylie Reed. It’s a work of fiction around race and privilege, and it was one of the better novels I have recently read.