“Listening to the customer” is often taken as a businesses assumption. But, solid program design is what brings that assumption into a method for gaining actionable data. Before providing a few practical guidelines on design, however, Marny Sumrall, Executive Director of YouthTruth, starts with a less talked-about question: Are you emotionally prepared as an organization to hear from the people you serve?
The moral case for including beneficiary feedback in social sector work is that it’s the right thing to consult directly with the people you intend to help. The utilitarian argument is that it yields better problem definition, strategy, programming, and results. By asking key questions and truly listening to and digesting the responses, we and our beneficiaries have something to important to gain.
But there is a major barrier: it can be a daunting exercise, both emotionally and practically. In our work at YouthTruth, we have learned many lessons about the challenges required to collect data, generate insight, and inspire action.
The first challenge is making it an organizational value to seek and act on beneficiary feedback. Pursuing beneficiary perspective requires your team to humbly admit that you may not have all the best answers. This acknowledgment can be hard for a team of smart, dedicated people, and the tendency can be to think that you should already have all the answers. In fact, the insight could be quite disruptive, as you may learn that your current theories and best practices were ineffective – or dead wrong.
The following guiding principles can help your organization navigate the emotional side of this process as you begin to solicit feedback:
- Expect your assumptions to be challenged or re-framed. The root causes of the problem may not be what you think.
- Be willing to hear yourself compared with others and with your own prior data points.
- Interpret findings in combination with internal expertise, research, evaluation efforts, and performance measures. Avoid dismissing the beneficiary point of view if there is conflicting information. Choose instead to explore the tension.
- Prepare to act on the feedback you receive. Anticipate that resources will be needed to make meaningful adjustments based on what you learn.
With the emotional groundwork in place, the methodology step should be more effective. When designing ways to ask beneficiaries for their feedback, you will face several choices.
- What is sustainable for your organization? Key factors should include frequency of collecting the feedback, as well as staff time to gather, synthesize, digest, and begin to act on the feedback.
- What type of information is most helpful for you? Determine if you want quantitative data, qualitative comments, or a combination.
- What process will generate honest feedback? Consider how to ensure confidentiality to encourage truly candid feedback. Be realistic about the challenges with capturing responses based on your constituent profile and your relationship with them. Determine whether to hire a third party for some or all of the process.
The above emotional and practical considerations have been central to our experience at YouthTruth. Across efforts to improve education, the vital student perspective is too often missing from the conversation. In response, YouthTruth has developed an affordable, comprehensive survey process that enables educators to include student perceptions in their improvement efforts. We gather candid student feedback in a rigorous and confidential way through an online survey, and then analyze the quantitative data and qualitative comments. Our questions are based on research in the education field and validated with ongoing statistical analysis.
In YouthTruth’s work with schools and districts, we place a high priority on presenting our analysis in a way that positions educators to digest and act on the data gathered. School and district leaders receive customized reports that translate detailed student feedback into actionable data and insight to better inform decision-making. Eighty-five percent of administrators agree that they have used YouthTruth data to make specific policy or programmatic decisions.
As Atlanta principal Peter McKnight shares, student perceptual feedback can function as an important leading indicator because “it measures some factors that are not directly manifest in the typical measures for school performance, like test scores, attendance rates, and graduation rates.”
(Watch Peter’s full interview in which he discusses his own school’s surprising findings upon looking at the data: “Using YouthTruth Data To Drive Change: One School’s Experience.”)
Asking for beneficiary feedback is a prompt to engage in a dialogue and to forge an emotional tie with those we intend to serve. Combining a reasonable structure to collect opinions with an earnest intent to listen will enrich your organization’s ability to effect social change.