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How to gather high-quality nonprofit client feedback

A woman collecting feedback from her colleagues.

Nonprofit organizations are always looking for ways to increase the impact of their work. One way to serve your clients more effectively is to gather feedback from participants, then use what you learn to improve services and support organizational change initiatives. 

At Listen4Good (L4G), we call this process a “client feedback loop.”  This includes asking questions such as: “To what extent have we met your needs?” or “What could we be doing better?” Follow-up questions might ask about specific aspects of the service or clients’ interactions with the nonprofit. When you hear directly from clients, you can better tailor services to their needs and preferences, which, in turn, helps increase client retention and impact. 

Here, we share recommendations on effective feedback practices, based on research we carried out with the Irritants for Change, a group of feedback experts and nonprofit rating and information-sharing platforms. In the study, we examined practices from hundreds of organizations that have participated in L4G’s feedback capacity-building program to identify which practices most helped organizations to gain new insights and bring about programmatic and organizational changes. 

1. Collect data from as many clients as possible 

Our research showed that it is essential to collect survey responses from as broad and representative a sample of your client population as possible. If you can trust the data to be representative, you can trust it to yield actionable insights. 

To collect a representative sample, we recommend administering surveys using multiple methods—in person, via text, by email, etc.—and explaining why you are gathering the information. At L4G, response rates vary by collection method, from a median of 64% for in-person surveys to 32% for emailed surveys. Intentionally reaching out to marginalized or underrepresented clients through tailored and targeted outreach and multiple methods can help ensure inclusive, representative data. If your response rates are below 30%, interpret the responses with caution.

2. Compare your data and look for trends

One of the challenges of opinion data is that it’s hard to know what’s a good average overall rating or result. Is a 4 on a 5-point scale typical or superlative? Comparing your organization’s ratings with what’s typical for similar organizations or ratings you’ve previously received will help you “norm” the feedback and identify areas for improvement. If you don’t have access to external benchmarks, another approach is to compare your own organization’s results over time. For example, if you ask clients to rate how satisfied they are with your services on a scale of 0 to 10, see if the average rating is going up or down over time. You can also compare feedback results between distinct programs or across site locations. 

Additionally, it’s important to identify patterns in your client feedback data. If, for example, your average satisfaction rating from clients is trending negatively, ask: Did something change in your organization’s staffing, programming, or curricula? Are the ratings worse in certain programs or locations? You’ll want to focus your improvement efforts on the areas where you see consistently lower ratings. For example, an afterschool program L4G worked with saw major differences in feedback between its paid and free programs; it was able to focus its improvement efforts on the lower-rated program.   

3. Bring others into your feedback process

Our research showed that organizations that involve staff and clients, not just top decision makers, at various stages of the feedback loop process are more likely to gain valuable insights and make changes based on what they learn. 

Involve staff and clients in the process both before and after you collect feedback. Ask clients and staff to review proposed survey questions to make sure they’ll make sense to other clients. Gather ideas about how best to increase response rates from harder-to-reach clients. 

After you’ve collected responses, ask staff and clients to help interpret them and to participate in crafting how you will respond. Organizations benefit from unpacking and discussing feedback via focus or advisory groups or follow-on interviews. Partnering with clients to design your response helps ensure you’re making improvements clients will appreciate. For example, the client advisory board of one anti-poverty organization confirmed that clients’ financial education needs had changed during COVID; this led to a shift in the curriculum. 

4. Close the client feedback loop

“Closing the loop” is the essential step of telling clients what you heard from their feedback overall and how you plan to respond. You can send out a summary email, hold a town hall, or follow up individually with respondents.      

In our study, nonprofits that closed the loop were more likely to see feedback positively impact their overall culture and decision-making processes than those that didn’t. Yet it’s also the step that nonprofits often skip.

Nonprofits often tell us that they’re worried about upsetting clients if they can’t take action on every suggestion, so they avoid reporting back. But in our experience, clients understand that nonprofits can’t act on every idea and appreciate a response, even if it’s: “We heard you, and here’s why we can’t act on your suggestion.” 

If you close the loop, your clients will be more likely to respond the next time you ask, since they’ll remember that you respected their feedback enough to let them know how you acted on it.

Let others know you’re listening

It’s increasingly clear that listening (and responding) to client feedback leads to better client outcomes. For busy nonprofits that want to ensure that their feedback loops are effective, the four best practices above are essential.

There are many resources out there to help nonprofits carry out these steps, including Listen4Good, Feedback Labs, and Fund for Shared Insight. And be sure to fill out the How We Listen section in your organization’s Candid profile describing your feedback efforts, so that funders, partners, and donors know how you are centering client feedback to inform programs and services!


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