October 6, 2013

3 Ways Nonprofits Can Improve Their Performance by Learning from the People They Serve

Some nonprofits have found that integrating constituents’ ideas with data on what works has led to better programs and greater impact. Here are a few approaches a handful of organizations are taking to get their clients and other constituents involved in shaping their work.

By: Willa Seldon, Matthew Forti
Photo: Family Independence Initiative

This op-ed originally appeared on the Chronicle of Philanthropy website.

Across the United States, thousands of organizations—parent groups, neighborhood associations, civil-rights organizations, membership groups—demonstrate every day the power of people to come together and act on their own behalf.

More and more nonprofits are also engaging clients or residents to deliver services more effectively and do more to solve social problems.

Yet for many nonprofits, particularly those not founded and led by the people the organization is trying to benefit, getting clients and other constituents involved in shaping their work remains a challenge.

While most of us understand that it makes sense to find out what people think, it is often unclear how best to elicit useful and timely input, much less how to take action based on it. And with gathering and using input such a daunting task, many cannot imagine involving constituents in deeper ways, like developing programs together or giving constituents control of resources.

However, in education, health care, neighborhood revitalization, and other causes, nonprofits have found that integrating constituents’ ideas with data on what works has sometimes led to better programs and greater impact. Among the approaches that help:

Gathering feedback. Sometimes getting useful input can be as simple as creating a focus group.

Connected by 25, a national nonprofit in Tampa, Fla., founded to help foster-care youths succeed as young adults, conducted focus groups to understand why so many foster children drop out of school. Instead of peppering young people with a long list of questions, the group’s executive director, Diane Zambito, simply wrote on a whiteboard: “Sixty percent of you drop out.”

The powerful stories these young people shared after Ms. Zambito offered that conversation starter led to a new, albeit common-sense, idea: providing school districts with a guidance counselor trained to help foster-care youths navigate the special problems they face—particularly the challenges of switching schools so often during their teenage years.

The organization’s principal supporter liked the idea and provided money to a local school system to try it out.

Within two years, high-school graduation rates for foster youths rose by more than 50 percent, and the percentage of those students performing at or above grade level almost doubled. The school system has since decided to support the position permanently.

While focus groups can lead to useful insights, sometimes the process of listening can be more complex.

IDE, formerly known as International Development Enterprises, helps poor rural households in developing countries earn more income, primarily through the use of new or improved agricultural techniques and products.

It seeks ideas from rural households to help it develop products they would enthusiastically adopt. In doing so, the nonprofit now uses a form of ethnographic research pioneered by the design consultancy IDEO called human-centered design. This highly structured process helps IDE tailor products for its rural clients by collecting observations of and stories from those clients and then designing prototypes that can translate into solutions to the problems the clients face.

The charity believes so much in the value of human-centered design that it had all of its country directors trained in the approach. Said Al Doerksen, IDE’s former leader: “Casual conversations are not enough. To be successful, you need to have a formal process that builds trust and unearths latent preferences.”

Making data relevant. Some organizations develop solutions to stubborn problems with their constituents. Consider the example of Friendship Public Charter School, a charter management organization that runs six charter and five turnaround schools in Washington and Baltimore.

Like many charter organizations Friendship initially attempted to help students do better by trying ideas that researchers said worked, like longer school days, double doses of math and reading, and team teaching. But by 2006, student-achievement gains had flatlined, prompting Patricia Brantley, the group’s chief operating officer, to search for new ways to get better results.

Friendship gathered ideas to create a list of leading indicators that drive student achievement. It then built a system for teachers to see these data in real time. But, according to Ms. Brantley, Friendship realized that to “truly enable breakaway performance required making the data useful for students and parents.”

So teachers posted simple scorecards of classroom performance, including measures such as attendance and discipline, and offered incentives that motivated students to work together to improve.

And they taught students how to track their own data. “We expect students as young as kindergartners to be able to explain and provide evidence of their progress to their teachers, their peers, and their parents,” Ms. Brantley said.

Young students might affix stars onto a paper as they learn each of five vocabulary words that are their goal for the week. Older students use indicators, such as mastery of important academic subjects, to figure out if they’re on track to get into college and to graduate. They are taught to use the data to set more ambitious goals for themselves and share progress at parent-teacher “Data Nights.”

Achievement at Friendship schools is moving upward again—90 percent of the schools have seen sustained gains in reading scores, math scores, and attendance—and Ms. Brantley credits these efforts as the key drivers.

Sharing power. Some nonprofits are finding success by tapping their constituents’ knowledge and resources to improve programs. For example, the Family Independence Initiative, or FII, has long struck partnerships with and learned from the low-income families it serves. “Poor people are broke, not broken,” according to its founder, Maurice Lim Miller, whose work won him a “genius” fellowship last year from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Programs and services aimed at low-income families and communities often use case managers and social workers who are supposed to direct and help their clients. Instead, Family Independence Initiative encourages families to form groups that meet regularly for mutual support.

These families, which have chosen to work together, get access to computers, matching funds for their savings, low-interest loans, and other resources. The nonprofit’s staff members meet regularly with the groups but are forbidden to deliver services or offer specific directions and advice. Group members rely mostly on each other, not the charity’s employees.

Candace Keshwar, a low-income mother of three who participates in the organization’s Boston chapter, explained: “FII felt respectful to the people they were trying to reach. Even though I may be in a tough situation right now, I still think of myself as smart and capable. They don’t tell us what to do or what’s best.”

Continuous measurement is another essential element of Family Independence Initiative’s work.

But it’s the families—not the evaluation staff—who collect and report progress monthly. The organization tracks about 200 pieces of data on each family.

Because the data collection is time-intensive, the nonprofit compensates families for reporting. These data not only help inform the organization’s overall efforts but also function as a self-help tool for families to monitor progress over time and change course when needed.

These and other examples demonstrate that nonprofits can realize tangible benefits when they seek ideas from the people they serve: more effective solutions, the opportunity to make fuller use of constituents’ own knowledge and capabilities to address the problem at hand, and potentially more sustainable change.

But is there a conflict between the use of evidence-based programs and constituent engagement? In many cases, we think not.

While programs shaped by data have elements that must be adopted faithfully, they usually have other elements that can and should be tailored to local needs. We have been struck by how constituent-driven nonprofits like Family Independence Initiative have been successful precisely because they marry clients’ involvement with a commitment to building an evidence base. To make the most of clients’ feedback takes practice, persistence, a willingness to learn, and a recognition that constituents’ ideas are not a panacea.

Our hope is that, as more organizations reach out to the people they serve, the nonprofit world will learn more about what approaches work best in different circumstances and how to combine clients’ ideas with hard data to create the best possible practices and programs.

Matthew Forti, a former manager at The Bridgespan Group, is director of the One Acre Fund USA. Willa Seldon is a partner in Bridgespan’s San Francisco office. To read their report on getting constituents involved in shaping a nonprofit organization’s work, go to bridgespan.org.

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