What We're Thinking

An Under-Tapped Source of Insight: Listening to the People We Seek to Help

“What does the evidence say?” is a common question in nonprofit and foundation work. We have ever more sources of information to measure progress indicators and ultimate intended outcomes. But sometimes, even with all these data, it’s easy to overlook a centrally important source of insight right in front of us – feedback from the people we ultimately seek to help. How are they experiencing programs and services? Are they being treated with respect? Would they recommend a nonprofit to a friend or family member? These are questions that a group of foundations are seeking to answer in a new effort to actively listen to the voices, perspectives, and preferences of the people they seek to help with their funding.

The Hewlett and Packard Foundations are two of eight core funders involved in a growing, national collaborative called Fund for Shared Insight, which strives to improve philanthropy by stimulating feedback loops, information-sharing, and openness in philanthropy. Twenty-three additional funders have joined Fund for Shared Insight to support our collaborative’s signature initiative, Listen for Good, which is dedicated to building the practice of listening and responding to those we ultimately aim to serve.

This spring, Listen for Good will launch its second year of grantmaking, with plans to invest more than $3.3-million in up to 75 nonprofits dedicated to listening systematically to their beneficiaries through a national open Request for Proposals. In 2016, 46 nonprofits in states across the country from Hawaii to North Carolina, with budgets of all sizes, and working in a range of fields received Listen for Good grants. These are matched grants wherein Shared Insight provides a 2:1 match along with a new nominating co-funder. Along with the grants, Shared Insight provides capacity-building assistance from our Listen for Good team to guide grantees through the five phases of implementing high quality feedback loops. These phases include:

1. Survey design: Structuring a survey and data-collection effort.
2. Survey administration: Programming, launching, and monitoring a survey.
3. Interpreting results: Identifying key themes in the data.
4. Responding to feedback: Sharing data internally and making course corrections.
5. Closing the loop: Sharing results with survey takers.

Among the Listen for Good participants in the first grant round were two Packard Foundation grantees, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, in Menlo Park, CA, and Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. An early look at their experiences show a good deal of progress, and some lessons for nonprofits who will join Listen for Good in 2017. For example, when Second Harvest surveyed nearly 1,000 clients at 10 food distribution centers, they found that while clients reported a positive experience overall, they were least satisfied with the long wait times. Client feedback also surfaced some concerns about customer service at select sites.

To address these shortcomings, Second Harvest is conducting pilot tests to shorten wait times, such as no longer pre-bagging items and using a lottery system to schedule client appointments. The program that serves large Spanish-speaking and Vietnamese populations is also newly implementing customer-service trainings for volunteers that include lessons in cultural sensitivity.

To close the feedback loop, Second Harvest recently handed out flyers at the distribution sites, outlining the changes made in response to the survey results, and had program managers on hand to answer questions. Gearing up for its next survey in May, Second Harvest is working on improvements to the survey process itself, such as better training volunteers to read and translate questions for clients who ask for language assistance.

From my vantage point as a funder who looks across this initiative, one of the biggest lessons that the Second Harvest staff exemplify is their focus on running a customer-centered organization. Their deep commitment to implementing all phases of the high-quality feedback loop, even when it might be logistically difficult or they might receive feedback that is hard to hear or make sense of, is nothing short of inspiring. I know that the organizations funded by Listen for Good in 2017 will benefit from everything that Second Harvest, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, and our 44 other Listen for Good grantees are learning this year about how to gain insight by systematically listening to those we seek to help.

Lindsay Austin Louie is a Program Officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation philanthropy grantmaking program, which sits within the foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group. In this role, Lindsay supports two grantmaking strategies that seek to increase and improve the effectiveness of all foundations: (1) Knowledge for Better Philanthropy, and (2) the Fund for Shared Insight.

Lindsay holds an M.B.A. from the Stanford Graduate School of Business with a certificate in Public Management, as well as an M.A. in Education, M.A. in Sociology, and B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University. She is the Board President of Counseling and Support Services for Youth (CASSY), a Bay Area nonprofit that provides school-based mental health services in over 30 local public schools.


  1. Feedback loops are wonderful for organizational learning and kudos in giving participants feedback on what Second Harvest learned. Has the Packard Foundation considered returning to projects it funded which it no longer does to learn what was sustained or emerged after foundation funding stopped? Assuming certain results were achieved, have they been sustained? Why or why not and what can the foundation and the implementer and participants learn? What emerged that might be a more locally sustained model? Thank you, Jindra Cekan. More at http://www.ValuingVoices.com

    1. Hi Jindra – thanks for your comment. I can speak for the OE team here at Packard. We have followed up with our OE grantees one to two years after their projects are completed to find out whether the changes that they made during their capacity building project were “sticky” or not. We are glad to report that most organizations felt that the changes stuck, even through major staff transitions – though of course that wasn’t true for everyone. You can read more about the results of that evaluation project here.

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