Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Constituent voice as a source of change

Did you know that Keystone Accountability offers a Free Feedback App? Check it out - you can get a customized survey to find out what your constituents (clients, partners, customers, users - whatever you call the people you serve) think of your work.

Keystone is a leader in the field of constituent voice. That's "fancy talk" for "What the customer has to say." They've been working with NGOs and NPOs for years to help the organizations listen to the people they serve. Now they're teaming up with Charity Navigator to put this information in front of potential donors.

This is critical. It matters if you are running an organization and it matters if you don't. It matters if you are looking to donate to an organization and it matters if you "just want to get something done." Technology is accelerating our abilities to act on our own, to connect with others and to make our opinions heard.

We're changing our behaviors to take advantage of this in many realms of life. We rely on our social networks to help us pick our shoes. We plan our conferences on wikis. We hear about mobile phone carrying farmers gaining influence in the marketplace. We debate how to calibrate the increasing role of SMS messages in everything from disaster response to election monitoring to overthrowing government. These are distinct activities centered around tech-amplified communications. But they all point to the way we communicate within our networks and beyond, for purposes both prosaic and profound.

More important than the technology are the conditions, attitudes, and expectations of the constituents and the powers that be. Keystone is helping international NGOs actively reach out, to seek feedback. They are helping organizations invite information and use it. This establishes a conversational attitude about the information that is shared. If you don't reach out, it's no longer the case that you won't hear from your customers. It's likely that may be 'sent' even more feedback - customers walking away and not coming back, unhappy constituents, failure to solve problems, and adversarial relationships with the very people your organization may need most. Whether or not you do anything with that feedback is up to you, but be certain of one thing - folks will be providing feedback.

As the Internet becomes ever more a part of how we work, share, shop, find information, and make change in the world this issue of feedback will become ever more important. A recent study by the Pew Center on the Internet and American Life found that online communications are quite embedded in how we go about "making the world a better place." As one of the report's author's noted, "Even in its absence, the internet seems to be a factor in the reality of how groups perform in the digital age."

We're already seeing this in cities - the use of the Internet for collective local action such as pothole fixing and neighborhood activism is well-documented. (see here, here and here for examples) As this story in O'Reilly Radar notes the Internet is becoming a new platform for collective action. All of this means that feedback is not only more necessary, you're going to get it whether you want it or not. So it probably makes sense to figure out how to use it.

The Pew study looked primarily at how people use the internet to get involved. The Keystone tools and reports look at how organizations can gather and use the opinions and expertise of their constituents to better serve their community. The analysis in both of the reports point to something grander than either study would dare claim at this point - so I will: the Internet is re-shaping how and where and with whom we make change happen. Feedback implies reaching out and getting something from the outside. But what's really going on here is that the outside has come inside and the inside has left the building

1 comment:

Valerie Threlfall said...

I share your perspective about how technology and social media are changing the game – and forcing organizations to engage in a dialogue with customers about their needs and experiences. Not to mention, allowing consumers to talk to each other. Consider, for example, restaurant review sites like Open Table or Yelp. Customers (including me) will routinely seek the advice of total strangers before making a decision about how to spend our money. Yet when it comes to beneficiary data – feedback from the ultimate customers themselves – the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are painfully slow to see the inherent benefits. The Keystone and Charity Navigator partnership offers a step in the right direction towards opening up these channels; beneficiary feedback is data that is simply too rich to be overlooked for informing our giving and social change efforts.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is working hard to make this type of feedback the norm rather than the exception. While we’re well known for our grantee perception surveys, a newer and lesser known project called YouthTruth collects feedback from those who have some of the least heard voices in the field of education – those of the students themselves. We’ve already gathered feedback from more than 50,000 students attending 119 schools. Through the YouthTruth survey, students get a chance to communicate about everything from the barriers and obstacles that impede success, to how their schools can design curricula and services to better meet student needs. CEP then provides this data on a comparative basis to school leaders, district/network leaders and education funders who are using the data to make programmatic, policy, and personnel changes in an effort to improve the student experience. Is it working? Absolutely. In fact, 99 percent of the schools involved in the program are using YouthTruth data to make specific changes at their schools. Is the customer always right? Not necessarily. But more times than not, they know what they are talking about. It’s time for our sector to listen up.