This article first published in the Financial Times in May 2018
Donors can encourage charities to seek feedback
Oxfam’s UK chief executive announced his resignation last week, after a spate of damaging allegations of abuse by the charity’s frontline staff in Haiti. But would the whole issue have been avoided if Oxfam had had a decent and open process for hearing from the people it seeks to serve?
Listening to intended beneficiaries can vastly improve a charity’s effectiveness, because they often understand the reality on the ground better than those who design a charity’s programmes.
The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) helps Americans with criminal convictions find and retain work and continually collects feedback from the people on its programmes. Its induction class in New York City started at 7am. The feedback system found that many participants lived so far out of town that transport near their homes had barely started at the time they needed to leave home to reach the class. Nobody in CEO could really remember why it started so early; simply by shifting the class an hour later, CEO saw satisfaction improve with no detrimental effects.
During Sierra Leone’s Ebola crisis, the UK’s Department for International Development funded surveys in affected regions of the country, looking at the general population, frontline aid workers, people in quarantine and households which had been decontaminated.
The data were collected weekly and later fortnightly. One finding was that quarantined people were receiving enough food but not enough water. Another was that the food parcels provided to quarantined households didn’t have food suitable for children, so people would go out to buy it, thus breaking the quarantine restrictions and spreading disease. Both problems could be resolved rapidly.
It is even possible to collect feedback in war zones and disaster situations. Ground Truth Solutions has worked with humanitarian agencies in Haiti, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and elsewhere. It gathers views of the affected communities and also front-line aid workers, usually via mobile phone, though face-to-face if necessary. Its systems, which provide for ongoing feedback, normally cost well below one per cent of the cost of an aid programme, says Nick van Praag, its director.
Yet these feedback mechanisms are rare in charities. It is worth understanding why. First, they count as “administrative costs”, which there is misguided pressure to minimise. Second, whereas companies have a financial incentive to listen to the people they serve since they provide their revenue, the same relationship does not apply to most charities, which serve precisely the people who are unable to pay for the support they need. Instead, charities’ main financial imperative is to attend to their donors.
Because “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, donors can help by encouraging charities to hear and heed the people they seek to serve.
Most charities and aid agencies will say, correctly, that they have some kind of process for receiving complaints or a telephone helpline. These processes are necessary but not sufficient. They leave the onus on the beneficiary and are used by only a small number of highly unrepresentative people.
They are also little trusted. For example, a survey of people in Haiti last year showed that 72 per cent did not know how to make a suggestion or lodge a complaint about an aid agency, and 89 per cent did not believe their views would be taken into account.
A decent system needs to gather feedback proactively, independently and from a large and representative group. But if the organisation doesn’t then act on the information, it breeds survey-fatigue, disempowerment and resentment, and is just part of an extractive industry.
The trick is to “close the loop” by consistently cooking people’s views into decisions, incorporating them in management processes, and then reporting back to the community about how their views were heeded. You can see how that might have saved the day in Oxfam.
Fewer than five per cent of nonprofits have a feedback system of that type, estimates FeedbackLabs, a group of organisations interested in this agenda.
Feedback may sometimes spark objections that the people being helped “don’t know what they’re talking about”. Yet in many cases the reverse is true. In Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, people’s answers to the question, “Do you think that the programme is making progress halting the disease”, turned out to correlate with (and was produced faster than) the medical data on the spread of the disease. In Uganda, complaints that the UNHCR refugee camps were not providing people with enough food were confirmed in independent studies by the World Food Programme.
Feedback is fundamentally about power. Gayle Smith, former director of the US Agency for International Development and now chief executive of the One Campaign, says feedback is not only about marginal improvements to services, but rather a “game changer” for how the major decisions get made about who is served, what services are provided, and what and who are not prioritised.
Feedback is radical because it denudes managers and strategists of their assumed infallibility, and instead gives primacy to communities often considered to be at the bottom of the pile. Making that shift may be painful — which is why donors are best-placed to make sure it happens.