New research shows that foundations are not providing sufficient funding for their nonprofit partners to gather feedback from beneficiaries and gauge how well they are serving their needs.
The research, conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, finds that most nonprofits are engaged to some extent in soliciting that feedback, but a lack of financial resources and few staff with the requisite skills and knowledge to do so are hindering those efforts. Roughly three out of five nonprofits surveyed by the group said a lack of resources was a key challenge to accurately assessing how well they were addressing the needs of their beneficiaries. And the bulk of nonprofit leaders say their foundation funders don’t thoroughly understand the needs of those they intend to help, and that their funding strategies reflect that lack of understanding.
According to Ellie Buteau, CEP vice president for research, gathering feedback from those who utilize nonprofit services can be invaluable in charting a way forward and improving upon the delivery and effectiveness of those services.
“The perspectives of those that nonprofits and foundations strive to help can be some of the most important in building projects and programs that are effective and bring significant positive change to individuals and communities,” Buteau said in announcing the research.
In that way, it is quite similar to the business sector, she told Corporate Philanthropy Report.
“Just as companies care to hear from their customers how well their products are meeting their needs, so too should funders care to hear how the nonprofits they support are meeting the needs of their beneficiaries,” she said.
According to Hearing from Those We Seek to Help: Nonprofit Practices and Perspectives in Beneficiary Feedback, which draws upon surveys of hundreds of charities conducted by the CEP, nearly all nonprofits are collecting feedback from their “customers” in some way—the most common being collecting stories from individuals (92 percent), followed by self-administered surveys (87 percent), systematic interviews (54 percent) and focus groups (39 percent). About 70 percent say they have made changes to their programs or services in response to such feedback—which should, in theory, lead to better, more efficient programs. Taken a step further then, the thinking goes that funders that provide grants or other support—say, skilled volunteers with expertise in customer service evaluations—are engaging in more effective philanthropy by directly funding efforts to solicit beneficiary feedback.
Given that, one might think funders are keen to support these activities. However, Buteau said, that’s not the case. Just about half of nonprofits reported that they had gotten any kind of support from their foundation funders to solicit feedback from the intended recipients of their programs and services.
According to the report, directing additional resources for these programs would do more than just increase the number of nonprofits soliciting feedback: It could very well lead to higher-quality—thus more useful—knowledge. That’s because the most common methods used right now—collecting individual stories and self-administered surveys—rely on beneficiaries to report their experiences directly to nonprofit staff, which may “limit the candor and utility of the feedback they receive,” the report states.
In other words, the recipients of social services or other charitable programs may be too uncomfortable to provide feedback that is critical of those services or those who provide them, thus potentially skewing the results. Getting around that—by using third parties to conduct feedback solicitation and evaluation services—requires resources that nonprofits are lacking, the report said.
According to Buteau, the perception among nonprofit leaders that funders lacked a solid understanding of their ultimate beneficiaries’ needs was an eye-opener, as was the high proportion of nonprofits who said that lack of understanding led to mismatched funding priorities and programmatic strategies. That’s because previous research conducted by the group found that most foundation executives—more than 80 percent—believed the opposite: that their limited understanding of the ultimate beneficiaries was not a barrier to the foundation’s ability to make progress in the focus areas.
Those divergent viewpoints are a cause for concern but could be addressed by directing more funding to feedback assessments, according to CEP President Phil Buchanan.
“Our research shows a disconnect between foundations and their grantees when it comes to listening to the people whom both groups are seeking to help,” said Buchanan, who co-authored the report. “Foundation strategies will be most effective when they are informed by those who will be affected.”
For more information, or to access the report in full, go to www.effectivephilanthropy.org.