Reprinted from NTEN.
We all know that conducting surveys and soliciting feedback is an essential part of building something that works for the communities we serve. We’re here for them, after all.
But we also know that attempting to gather, weigh, and honor survey feedback can be challenging. We live in a world of budgets, work plans, and funding cycles. How do we take feedback on the things the community wants and needs even as we know for sure that we won’t be able to give everyone what they want? How do we take feedback from community members who have generational trauma without re-traumatizing them and ourselves along the way?
As nonprofit workers, we are here to make a difference. To do so, we must work with our service populations hand in hand. No amount of training or education will be able to take the place of lived experience, which is why it is such an essential ingredient in lasting success.
Here are some tips on getting feedback from your community while meeting its needs and the needs of your staff:
- Be selective. In a perfect world, we would have the resources to survey every community member. But this world is far from perfect, and some data is better than no data. So make a decision: Determine the most important people or groups you need feedback from. Make sure you spend the time resources you have on getting the word out to them first. In-person is twice as effective as a call, and a call is at least twice as effective as an email for getting people to take action and participate in your survey.
- Be objective. When collecting data, remember the acronym JADE: don’t justify, argue, defend, or explain yourself to community members. Answer questions if the answer is easy, but think of yourself as a documentarian only. This way, you don’t influence your members’ feedback unduly with your own thoughts and opinions. When you get the data back, read it as if you were a third party. Or, if you possibly can, get a third-party volunteer, co-worker, or contractor to read and synthesize the data for you. Try to keep your own biases forefront in your mind so you can avoid them as much as possible.
- Reciprocate. You’ve taken something from your community: its feedback. Now it’s time to show what you did with it. Write a blog post, have a share-out, make a video, or somehow make sure the community sees the return of the information they gave to you in its new, improved synthesized form. Make sure to budget time and money to ensure that the priority community members you identified in step 1 are informed of what you did with their data.
- Communicate. Use this data to determine your next steps and then tell people that those are your choices. Be clear about what you will and what you won’t do and why. It is okay to tell someone that while their idea is good, it’s not in line with your values as an organization. Or maybe it is, but it’s not as urgent as other things that are getting funded before it. It can be hard to tell people no. Still, it’s kinder to say something isn’t happening than it is to be vague and let them continue to use their time and energy thinking it might be possible.
- Be kind. Firstly, be kind to yourself. You are doing hard work, and if you’re taking surveys in person or on the phone, you might be hearing hard things. That means you will be more tired at the end of the day, and you may not have the emotional bandwidth that you’re used to. It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to have feelings. It’s okay to ask for support from your network. Secondly, be kind to your community members. When they tell you the truth about their identities and experiences, even when they are negative, they are giving you a gift and trusting you enough to be vulnerable with you. Invest in whatever you need to help you keep kindness at the center of your survey taking.
As you embark on your feedback journey, remember that no matter which part of the nonprofit world you come from, no matter what your organizational mission is, this is the work of generations. We’re all doing the best we can with what we have. Making the decision to invest in collecting feedback from your community will have far-reaching positive effects on your experience as a person and as an organization. Remembering to be selective, be objective, reciprocate, communicate, and be kind will help you with this as well as other journeys you may take on.