by Hannah Gooding, Consultant, Hedges

In our everyday lives, we constantly ask questions and use data to help us make better, smarter decisions. Can we say the same about decision making at our nonprofits? Think about your last staff or board meeting. What information did you have to inform your decisions? Maybe you were considering what expenses to cut due to COVID. What data did you have at your disposal? Budgets alone can’t tell you what programs are the most impactful to those you serve, why your donor retention is going down, or what inefficiencies are causing bottlenecks for your team. To get that information, you need real-time feedback.

Why feedback is a game changer.

According to a survey conducted by Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2019, 88 percent of nonprofit leaders prioritize gathering client feedback while only 13 percent use it as a “top source of insight for continuous improvement.” Two-thirds of organizations not collecting client feedback said their greatest barrier was limited staff time and/or resources, and 20 percent said collecting feedback was “too complicated” or “too expensive.” If these statements resonate with you, consider the following:

  1. Collecting feedback will make your organization more efficient in the long run. Gathering feedback from the people you serve will not only make your programs more impactful, but make your service-delivery more efficient. You might learn families don’t need or want something you’ve been providing for years or would rather participate in your program virtually so you could cut food and transportation expenses while boosting engagement rates. Feedback data might help you recognize how different programs can be combined, pared down, or supported by volunteers. In addition, having satisfaction data direct from your participants will make your grant proposals more appealing and your impact reports more compelling. That’s right, collecting feedback can both lower your administrative expenses and increase your fundability. Win, win.
  • How should you collect participant feedback? To collect in-depth, qualitative feedback about your services, organize a focus group with the individuals who participate in your programs or receive your services. Use a time and space with minimal barriers such as a community center (with social distancing) or video conferencing. Alternatively, if you want to collect high-level, quantitative data, consider surveying your participants. The survey should be brief and easy to access. For both focus group and survey options, consider offering incentives for participation and using third-party facilitator to ensure participants can be fully transparent.
  • What should you ask participants? Ask program participants if and how your services are making a difference for them; what about your services is most meaningful to them; what, if any, barriers complicate receiving your services; and what could improve their overall experience with your organization.
  1. Collecting feedback is great donor stewardship. By the end of the year, your donors are tired of being asked for money. The majority of American donors give to three or more organizations, so their inboxes are inundated with #GivingTuesday emails and asks for support. But remember the saying—”Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money twice?” December and January are great months for collecting feedback from your donors. Asking your donors to share their input makes them feel valued and engaged in your work. Plus, their feedback should help you determine what information is meaningful to them, why they support you, and how they feel connected to your mission. All of this data will help you build relationships with your donors, keep them engaged, and prepare for larger asks in the future.
  • How should you collect donor feedback? Digital surveys are excellent tools for collecting feedback from your donors. Send out a survey to your general donor list and consider posting the survey on your social media. For your major donors, gathering their feedback should be more personal. Enlist Board members to share the survey with one or two donors using a personalized email or set up a Zoom meeting to go through the questions in an interview style.
  • What should you ask donors? Ask donors if they feel well-connected to your organization, if they can see the impact of their giving, why they choose to give, whether they would recommend your organization to others, and how they prefer to be recognized. If the survey may reach lapsed donors, ask why they don’t currently give and what might inspire them to give in the future. Sound scary? Remember, if lapsed donors take the step to even open your survey (and many do), odds are they’re still interested in supporting you. Asking for their feedback can be the perfect way to reach out without making it awkward.
  1. Collecting feedback could solve your turnover problem. We hear a lot of nonprofits talking about their staff turnover rate and setting aggressive goals to curb turnover. However, not all turnover is bad turnover. What really matters is why staff members feel the need to move on. Is it a culture issue? A salary issue? Perhaps some teams are constantly overwhelmed while others are bored. Collecting staff feedback is an important and effective way to monitor your organizational health and assess what is working and what is not. These insights give you the “why” behind a turnover rate and help you get to solution faster. Feedback can help you get ahead of an issue before it becomes worse, identify blind spots, and even give you statistics to strengthen your staff recruitment.
  • How should you collect staff feedback? Whereas you might collect feedback from your participants and your donors once or maybe twice per year, you should collect staff feedback at least once per quarter. Many organizations use a “pulse survey” to collect essential, real-time feedback on a handful of key indicators. Pulse surveys allow you to identify issues as they occur and take more immediate action. It’s important to use the same questions in each survey so that data can be compared over time. If you don’t have a designated Human Resources professional on staff, consider using a third-party to ensure staff members can be fully transparent.
  • What should you ask staff members? Using the Net Promotor Score is a great place to start. You should also ask staff about their satisfaction with workplace culture, if they can maintain appropriate work/life balance, whether they feel connected with other employees, whether they feel appropriately valued, and if they see opportunities for professional growth. Consider asking about pain points as well — for example, how does your team feel about remote work or coming back to the office?
  1. Collecting feedback can breathe life into your Board. Halloween is behind us, but maybe your Board meetings still feel like a scene out of a zombie movie. You ask a basic question and get a sea of blank stares. It’s painful, we know. But often times, Boards become disengaged and zombie-like when members either don’t understand their role, or there is no clear structure of accountability to ensure everyone is doing their part. Many Board members feel embarrassed to admit what they don’t know so they don’t ask, and then the cycle of uncertainty continues. Gathering Board feedback can be a great way to break that cycle and get an honest sense of what Board members are thinking in real-time. Feedback data might tell you some members are ready to roll off while others are ready to step up into leadership roles. You might learn simple solutions — for example, maybe members would be more engaged if Board meetings were scheduled in the mornings instead of the evenings. Feedback results can give you an objective base to start from so that no one has to feel singled-out and you can address the elephant in the room with a positive, solutions-focused attitude.
  • How should you collect Board feedback? Ideally, the Executive or Governance Committee is accountable for collecting and analyzing feedback. However, the Board Chair may also lead or outsource a confidential feedback collection process. Similar to staff feedback, Board feedback is most effective when it is captured regularly. Consider using the pulse survey format to gather feedback quarterly. At a minimum, all Boards should complete an annual engagement survey.
  • What should you ask Board members? Ask Board members about their satisfaction with the Board’s culture, communication, and effectiveness; what they perceive to be the role of the Board; what they need to be an effective and engaged Board member; whether they feel valued; and what they would change about Board meetings. You can also ask about committee involvement, leadership goals, and satisfaction with their personal giving.

So many organizations have had to completely reimagine their work this year. Many have had to pause or cut programs, cancel fundraising events, and toss out their strategic plans. Maybe your organization is approaching 2021 with nothing but question marks. No survey or focus group will tell you what the future holds, but feedback can help you make informed decisions. Meet your stakeholders where they are and ask for their input. With their feedback, you can assess where organization is strong and what you need prioritize so that your decisions are made with greater reliability, clarity, and certainty.

Hannah Gooding has been a Consultant with Hedges since 2017. With a background in nonprofit program management, her expertise in research and strategic thinking has supported dozens of nonprofit organizations in Central Indiana.

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