Listen to the people you serve

This week’s edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy explores some of the changes that are coming in the way that leading watchdog Charity Navigator is evaluating, and awarding its noted four-star system to, nonprofits. “Long lambasted for the way it focuses too much on financial criteria like how much an organization spends on overhead, Charity Navigator has thrown its weight behind a growing movement to get charities to be more ‘results-oriented’ and ‘evidence-based,’” the Chronicle reports.

This shift is hardly a surprise, given the growing drumbeat from virtually every side that nonprofits must do a significantly better job of defining, delivering, measuring, acting on, and communicating lasting impacts. What is somewhat unexpected, however, is a question from Charity Navigator on the extent that each organization seeks feedback on its work from the people it serves.

There are raging debates on whether a one-size-fits-all evaluation system like Charity Navigator’s can possibly be appropriate to such a diverse range as the American nonprofit sector represents—with such a staggering range across the measures of size, audience served, nature of work, geography, industry, and so on. And of course there will continue to be passionate arguments made from within the sector about why measuring impact isn’t feasible for every nonprofit.

But amid this complicated dialogue is a simple truth: few nonprofits have effective evaluation systems, and fewer yet include feedback from the people they serve on anything more than an anecdotal basis. You may frankly not care what trends will affect Charity Navigator’s reports beginning in 2016, and that’s fine, but you will never go wrong seeking more, listening more, and adjusting your practices accordingly in a spirit of continuous improvement.

Here are a few ideas.

1. Hand out self-addressed, postage paid (or stamped) postcards. Yes, Virginia, there really still is a delivery service for things called envelopes and letters, and some populations rely on it or prefer it.

2. Put a link on the landing page of your website to a four-question electronic survey. One agency mentioned in the Chronicle article puts the link in the email signature of every employee.

3. Conduct a short, consistent three-question live interview, designed or conducted by your staff and volunteers, and figure out how (and how often) to compile the results.

4. Set up a voicemail box in your system that is just for people to leave comments. Publicize the number or extension with the same rigor that you publicize your URL.

5. Set up an email address just for feedback, and because confidentiality likely matters, have a trusted third party (perhaps a former board member) monitor that mailbox and forward the messages to you while allowing the original sender to remain anonymous.

6. Make it easy for people to tell you what you need to know. Depending on your constituents, it may make sense to have a cell phone number that accepts text messages, with the same “intermediary” buffer as above to forward the content of messages only.

7. Think about how you could approach a subset of your customers for more intensive one-on-one interviews.

8. Invite those who have recently received your services to participate in a professionally facilitated, 90-minute focus group twice a year.

9. Host a real or virtual “town hall” type meeting. Publicize it vigorously.

10. Designate a staff person or volunteer to serve as an ombudsman or customer liaison. This person might have an open door or “office hours” each Thursday, or perhaps host an informal brown-bag lunch discussion each month.

Only you know which of the above, if any, would be a fit for your nonprofit. The goal isn’t to hold out for some perfect, affordable way to improve your listening skills; the challenge is to start testing what works with whatever you’ve got.