More Voices, Richer Data for Greater Impact

Fund for Shared Insight marks a new chapter for philanthropy

In 2012, Oakland, California, was drowning in public record requests. An already overworked system had been flooded by requests for video, email and internal documents related to the Occupy Oakland protests. But there was no clear way of monitoring them, managing duplicates or keeping those who had made requests informed about their status. Meanwhile, the city’s funding had been slashed and the number of public employees was at a low. For the records requests process, things turned around when the city began working with a team of Code for America Fellows. Over the course of their fellowship year in 2013, a three-person team of developers, two of whom were Oakland residents, worked with a host of stakeholders and created RecordTrac, an app that allows city employees to manage records requests, keep requesters updated and post documents online for others who may want them. It also makes it easier for citizens to submit requests, and it tracks data that can be used to improve the system.

This system is one of hundreds that are being created across the country to make government more accessible and responsive—whether it’s to help citizens report graffiti and broken streetlights or access services like food stamps.

More important than clever apps, organizations including Code for America,DataKind, Democracy Works and the Sunlight Foundation (all of which the Rita Allen Foundation supports) are working to build a civic culture in which all citizens use their expertise and experiences to solve problems collaboratively; in which transparency and openness can be expected; and in which public officials seek and respond to citizen feedback in a robust system of which voting is just one—accessible and widespread—part. In Oakland, a push over several years for open civic data crystallized in 2013, when citizens, nonprofits and elected officialsworked together to draft new legislation creating an official open data policy for the city—and it passed unanimously.

Can a culture of greater openness, participation and responsiveness extend to philanthropy? We and several of our fellow funders believe it can—but we’re not there yet. The Fund for Shared Insight, which launched in September, is a collaborative effort among the Rita Allen Foundation and six other foundations—the Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Packard Foundation, The JPB Foundation, Liquidnet and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—to advance the prevalence and practice of asking for feedback from the people we seek to help; to understand the connection between feedback and better results; to foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and to share what we learn.

There are organizations across the social sector deeply committed to building their responsiveness to those they seek to help, and they do so in creative—sometimes radical—ways. The Foundation is supporting the Center for Effective Philanthropy’scurrent research to better understand how the nonprofit sector uses feedback.Feedback Labs (for which the Rita Allen Foundation is providing seed funding) is demonstrating that there is widespread hunger among nonprofits, public officials, researchers and donors to raise standards of beneficiary engagement efforts around the world. New technology and new methods make it possible to listen and respond to large numbers of people like never before.

But there remain significant barriers to cross if we are to seize the potential of what some have called “the age of feedback.” To begin to get a sense of the difficulty of doing feedback well, just think back to the last time you filled out a user-satisfaction survey online—say, for a clothing store or a news site. Do I hear some of you saying that you can’t remember back that far? Neither can I.

When you ask for feedback, you’re asking for a gift of time, mental energy, even vulnerability. Then, there is a need to figure out what questions to ask, which tools and methods to use, how to analyze results and apply them on the ground, and how to let people know how you’re responding. Improving how we use feedback as a sector will require us to delve into a web of interconnected issues—beginning with the person-to-person relationships that link foundations, nonprofits and the people ultimately reached by our work.

This is a vast and crucial task. To make progress, we need new ways of involving people whose voices aren’t normally heard. We need to engage the staff of foundations in better seeking and incorporating feedback. We need tools that make it feasible for nonprofits of every size to be able to collect useful feedback from their constituents. We need to build a culture of openness in which wemeasure to learn and work together to change complex systems.

Visit the Fund for Shared Insight to learn more about applying for Shared Insight grants, find resources that inform our thinking, hear how fellow funders can get involved and, of course, give us your feedback. Proposals for this year’s grant cycle are due October 15, with decisions by November 17. Shared Insight will be giving approximately $5.5 million in grants in this year alone, and a projected $5–6 million in the following two years.

The value of seeking better feedback and more openness in philanthropy is clear to many of us. So much so, that it can be hard to connect with the transformative potential that still lies untapped in this area. In hospitals, as simple a step as caregivers washing their hands is key to preventing infections. Yet raising hand-washing rates, particularly in high-intensity settings, is more complicated than you might expect. Similarly, seeking and incorporating beneficiary responses should be built into everything we do as a matter of course. Getting there will require many collaborators with many perspectives. I hope you will be among them.