The following essay, first published on August 19, 2019, is a response to an article in NPQ on participatory grantmaking by Cynthia Gibson. We, along with many readers, found the article made some important and substantive distinctions between feedback and two-way communication practices that shift essential power relationships. Here, we present a response from the director of the Fund for Shared Insight responds. Let’s keep this conversation going! 

At Fund for Shared Insight, the national funder collaborative I manage, we were pleased to see so much of the Nonprofit Quarterly’s summer 2019 issue focus on stakeholders and accountability, concepts central to our work of encouraging more funders and nonprofits to listen to and act on the perspectives of the people they serve.

One of Shared Insight’s primary goals is that foundations—in their decision-making, strategy development, and grantmaking practices—be informed and influenced by the voices and opinions of the people and communities they seek to help. If that change happens, we believe those served by philanthropy will be better off in ways they define for themselves. Given those aims, we were especially interested in Cynthia Gibson’s article on participatory grantmaking, a practice that holds the potential to disrupt unhealthy power dynamics, strengthen philanthropy’s connection to lived experience, and advance equity.

We are concerned, though, that the article’s title, “Moving beyond Feedback: The Promise of Participatory Grantmaking,” may leave some readers with the impression that feedback and participatory grantmaking are gradations along a continuum of practice from “just OK” to “best.” The article reinforces that idea by describing feedback and listening as “necessary but insufficient” and characterizing participatory grantmaking as inherently more transformative. This line of thinking shortchanges the power of authentic, effective, and systematic listening.

We believe that listening and feedback, when executed with the right intentions, quality, and follow-through, are transformative practices. Client-focused feedback loops, implemented at their best, involve not only asking for feedback but, most importantly, responding to the opinions, perspectives, and concerns raised and closing the loop with respondents, engaging them as partners in problem-solving and decision-making. Shared Insight is helping to build a culture and practice of feedback in the social sector that meets these high standards.

Still, we know that high-quality feedback loops are not the only way to confront the power imbalance in philanthropy or ameliorate systemic and structural inequities in our society. In fact, we believe that no single approach is, by itself, sufficient to achieve those goals. We view feedback and listening as critical, foundational, and accessible practices that are part of a toolkit of approaches (including participatory grantmaking) that can help nonprofits and philanthropy address these challenging issues.

Through the experiences of the more than 400 direct-service nonprofits and nearly 100 funders across the country participating in our Listen4Good initiative, we are demonstrating feedback’s positive, lasting benefits. When done right, feedback can provide actionable data on how to improve programs and at the same time catalyze or spark other organizational changes and deeper listening practices. By surfacing disparities in experience among different groups, especially those that have been historically marginalized, feedback also can help organizations strengthen their commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion.

We are seeing feedback loops produce shifts in power relationships and organizational culture, moving nonprofits from viewing clients as passive beneficiaries to valued partners. Some Listen4Good-participating nonprofits have created client advisory groups; others have started to routinely involve clients in program design and assessment and even hiring decisions. At Our House, which works with homeless and near-homeless families in Little Rock, Arkansas, the feedback process has, according to its executive director, “created a new dynamic of accountability” and changed the orientation of decision-making, program development, and client relations into a two-way street.

We have also seen changes among our Listen4Good co-funding partners, including increased openness to all types of listening and growing recognition of the value of feedback. As an example, the Moses Taylor Foundation in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is using community feedback collected by a school-based health program through Listen4Good to inform foundation strategy for improving access to healthcare in the region.

While the upsides of listening and responding are tangible, meaningful, and often inspirational, the barriers and risks associated with implementing feedback loops are low. Most nonprofits and foundations could start building high-quality feedback loops in short order. In contrast, the number of grantmakers who are convinced of the value of participatory grantmaking and willing to take on the effort and perceived risk is likely to remain relatively small. As Gibson states, “participatory grantmaking is a tough sell.” That’s one of the reasons we believe the field needs to reject the notion of a hierarchy of approaches and, instead, support and promote the idea of a toolkit in service of client and community engagement and partnership.

Feedback, listening, and participatory grantmaking are aligned and complementary approaches with the same goal: shifting power. Rather than moving “beyond feedback,” let’s together commit to advancing all the tools available for valuing the opinions, insights, and lived experience of the people at the heart of our work.