Insights > Nonprofit

Nonprofit Listening and Feedback: Why it's Important and How to Start

Nonprofit Listening and Feedback: Why it's Important and How to Start


Valerie Threlfall

Impact Opportunity spoke with Valerie Threlfall, Managing Director at Listen4Good, about the organization’s work in supporting nonprofits in their listening and feedback efforts. In the following interview, she shares why listening and feedback are important in the sector, how an organization can get started, and best practices to follow. 

Tell us about Listen4Good.

Listen4Good is a capacity-building initiative designed and created out of the Fund for Shared Insight. We help direct service organizations build high-quality feedback practices with the people that they serve. Many organizations haven't directly asked their clients, "How could we make this better for you?" "Are these interactions that we're having respectful?" "Do you feel included?" "Are your needs being met?" In the social sector, we don’t always consult the people receiving programming for their perspectives. Listen4Good seeks to change that. We provide coaching, tools, and technical resources to help organizations kickstart their listening practice. As of today, we have worked with more than 570 organizations around the United States.

What does “listening” mean?

Listening is broad, and there are many different methods you can employ, depending on the needs at hand.

In the case of Listen4Good, we specifically focus on client feedback as our primary method of listening. We use surveys to ask people to share their perspectives and opinions on their experiences with an organization so that we can hear how those experiences could be improved. This allows us to obtain broad representative feedback from the people who are served. These insights can be married with structures like advisory groups to get deeper input and to enable clients to have more active engagement with an organization’s decision-making processes.

Feedback is an opportunity to hear how an organization is meeting needs, directly through the experiences and perceptions of the people who receive those services. For example, how does a program make them feel? Does that match with the intentions of the program? Are there gaps in service delivery? Feedback will yield important information that would not be revealed otherwise.

If listening and feedback have not been widespread practices, why is that changing?

The sector is changing. We are one of the very few sectors where clients are not treated in a customer-centric way. It’s important for the nonprofit sector to catch up to the practices of other sectors, and ask clients, “How was this for you?”

We believe that feedback and listening are the “right things” and the “smart things” to do. When you consider it from a moral and equity-based perspective, programs are usually designed without the voices and input of the people who are receiving those services which is wrong. Donors, funders, and program leads are creating the solutions and building those services, but they are often far from the day-to-day experience of clients.

As program leads, we can do theory of change modeling and planning, but we also make many assumptions (and project our biases) about how a program will be experienced when it is rolled out. Feedback and listening allow you to pressure test and challenge your assumptions and your biases so that you can strengthen your programs and improve service delivery.

Feedback is also an opportunity to transform measurement from an antiseptic experience to a human-centered one. When you ask people about their experiences with an organization and its services, you measure success in a client-centered way, as opposed to a pre-defined benchmark.

A feedback practice is an important tool to have in your toolbox as you consider fundamental questions about where power resides in the nonprofit sector, how to bring an equity lens to your work, and how to be inclusive.

Ultimately, we believe that it is a sign of respect and equitable engagement to listen directly to the people we serve. 

How should an organization start a feedback process? How do they start off on the right foot?

Start small. Feedback and listening are like muscles that need to be gradually developed over time. You can compare it to working out: it’s good to start small and do it consistently. You essentially create a new habit. For example, if you are providing virtual programming, you can regularly end meetings with an open invitation for feedback. You can ask, “How did today’s session go? Is there anything we could do better? Was anything missing from today’s training?”

If you’d like to go a step further, you can call a few people to solicit feedback and bring them in to have conversations. You could also move to a survey-based process. At Listen4Good, we work to make the process as streamlined and accessible as possible. We have a pre-templated survey with many questions that can be customized; it’s a great way to get started. 

As organizations start the process of listening and feedback, are there any dos and don’ts?

First, use the feedback. Second, close the loop with constituents.

There is so much data collection that goes nowhere in the nonprofit sector. We often ask for input or data and then we don’t do anything with it. I believe that we should always use the feedback we solicit.

At Listen4Good, it is part of our core practice to use the data we collect, to tell clients what we heard, and what we plan to do with that information. We call this “closing the loop.”

I’d like to share a story with you which I will never forget. Before working with Listen4Good, I ran YouthTruth, a student feedback system. One day, I was waiting to conduct a focus group with youth in Boston and I watched a young woman go right down the middle of a survey she’d been handed from a teacher prior to our meeting, quickly circle random answers, and hand it in.

Why did this young woman fill out the survey in this way? She did so because she had no faith that anyone would listen to her feedback on the survey. Disenfranchised people have a rightful sense of cynicism. They don't believe their feedback will be taken seriously. That’s why closing the loop is so important. If people and organizations authentically demonstrate they are listening, fundamental change can begin.  

If an organization wants to get started with feedback and listening, who in the organization should lead the effort?  

After working with over 550 organizations, we have found that it depends largely on the size of an organization. In smaller organizations, the executive director tends to lead the process, or it lives within the program team. If an organization is more mature, we see the measurement function pulled out as a separate entity within the organization and they often lead this work.

We've seen organizations approach this in different ways. Sometimes, it's about measurement and understanding impact. Other times, it's about engagement and wanting to be more inclusive as an organization and really being driven by goals around equity and inclusion. As there are different entry points, it can come through various departments and look different.

 No matter who oversees feedback, it is important that the team members involved can respond to the feedback, either by having the budget authority or the authority to make strategic decisions. Unfortunately, in some cases, feedback can get siloed into one small department, and there is no buy-in from the senior team to help the organization think about how to respond to the feedback. An effective listening cycle requires the involvement of many different stakeholders throughout the organization. 

If an organization has implemented a feedback program, should they communicate this work to their board?

Yes. Within the nonprofit and philanthropic sector right now, there is an active conversation challenging who has a voice and who's at the decision-making table. This conversation was catalyzed by George Floyd's murder and the response to it, as well as the pandemic.

BoardSource published a great article just this month in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, called  “Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership”. As the board is typically disconnected from the work on the ground, feedback provides a magnificent opportunity to engage boards.

Similarly, if you examine decision-making at the senior level in nonprofit organizations, you’ll find that many decisions are made a certain way because they’ve always been done a certain way. However, the rationale may have shifted, and it’s important to challenge that assumption.

To illustrate this, I’d like to share a story from the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which works with people who were formerly incarcerated. CEO was an early pioneer in the feedback space.

Through their feedback efforts, they learned that their programs, which started at 7:00 AM, were incredibly difficult for people to meet on time. Many of the participants were coming out of shelters or a congregate home setting, where it was not easy to leave early in the morning due to the rules that those sites have. Program participants shared they would have to get up at 4:00 AM or 5:00 AM, and request special permission to get to CEO so early. When you asked the program why they started at 7:00 AM, no one had a good answer. After receiving this feedback, the organization decided to start the program at 8:00 AM. It was a small change that made a radical shift in the quality of life for the people that were being served.

If an organization is conducting listening and feedback, should that information be promoted and shared with funders?

Absolutely. Funders wish to ground themselves in the communities and the voices of the people they serve. There is also a growing conversation about how funders can partner or leverage the experiences of nonprofit organizations to help them get closer to the ground and then channel that information up to funders. Some funders are increasing their expectations. Some are asking, “What are you doing to get closer to the field? How are you as a nonprofit building in perspectives from the community?”

Nonprofits can now share their feedback efforts on their Candid profile, which allows organizations to use listening as a point of differentiation. Funder interest in listening and feedback continues to grow, and we hope it will continue. 

How do implementing listening and feedback programs affect an organization? 

I continually marvel at how a feedback practice will manifest for different organizations. Feedback is like throwing a pebble in the water; it creates numerous ripple effects. The focus and significance of those ripple effects depend on the organization. Feedback can inform specific program changes, such as the time you start your training program, how services are delivered, or the languages used for your program materials; but feedback can also kick off a whole host of organizational changes.

Listening should start with listening to clients. Then, organizations start to ask how they should engage with their staff differently, and then their organizational partners. Suddenly, the practice of listening, engagement, and feedback starts to permeate an organization.

We have also seen feedback catalyze an equity journey for many organizations. While they may have had ideas about becoming more inclusive, feedback becomes a core component to their approach to inclusion and equity.

And finally, many organizations want to become better learning organizations. Feedback plays a critical role because it's building the muscle of collecting and reflecting on data, and using it to make different decisions. Once you use it here, feedback can serve as great groundwork for future measurement and learning opportunities. It can change organizations in many ways and help them meet multiple goals.

What's next for Listen4Good?

We now have two offerings, available 2-3 times a year, that build off our work from the last five years. We invite any and all organizations to participate, including nonprofits, government agencies, and funders with their own portfolio of organizations. Our next deadline is July 15, 2021!

Our first program is Listen4Good Premium, an 18-month program that provides dedicated coaching support and access to several online tools, including a web app that walks participants through the process of building a high-quality feedback practice step-by-step. Participants also receive access to a benchmarking system to compare their feedback against others, a peer community, webinars, and robust ongoing support. This program is offered at $6,000.

 Our second program is called Listen4Good Online+, which relies more on our group learning opportunities and our web app and online tools. Participating organizations receive coaching in a group setting and on-demand as needed. This program is offered at $1,000.

Both programs offer structure to help build these new feedback muscles. To find out which program is right for your organization, we encourage you to speak to us to help you determine the best fit. We would be thrilled to have more organizations participating in our upcoming rounds. 


Learn more about participating in Listen4Good >>


Read more about Valerie's career path in our Career Perspectives >>