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Civic Voice Volunteers

by Susannah Washburn

The private sector spends many millions of dollars each year listening to its customers – but what about the nonprofit sector? And who are its customers?

Whether its taste tests, focus groups, or customer satisfaction surveys, companies want to hear from their customers to refine products and generate more business. In the nonprofit world, the relationships can be more complex.

In most cases, the consumer of services is not the payer. As a result, a nonprofit’s focus is sometimes transferred to the funder instead of the service beneficiary. This is natural since a decline in donor interest immediately puts a nonprofit organization in crisis.

In the private sector, there are multiple opportunities for consumers to rate products using on-line sites like Yelp and Consumer Search. Consumers can also tap into reviews by experts in places like Consumer Reports and Consumer Guide.

The nonprofit sector is a little different. While charity rating sites such as Charity Navigator, Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, and the American Institute of Philanthropy's Charity Rating Guide exist, most focus on input not impact.

Most current rating sites analyze things like program expenses, overhead rates, and working capital ratios. This emphasis on inputs is partly a necessity since the primary data source on nonprofits is the IRS 990 form -- the annual reporting return that tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS. The form provides information on an organization's finances, programs, and mission but is largely silent on program effectiveness and impact.

To help address this gap, David Bonbright of Keystone Accountability is promoting an approach called Civic Voices Volunteers. He is currently working with St. John’s University in New York City and AmeriCorps VISTA. The VISTA member placed at St. John’s is supported by Keystone to deploy service-learning undergraduates as civic voices data gatherers.

Constructive Feedback

Over the past year, these service-learning students worked with two leading New York City charities to develop and administer questionnaires to their beneficiaries. Even in its first round, the feedback collected by student volunteers has gotten the two charities excited about ways to improve their services and develop new service offerings.

In addition, Charity Navigator has begun a very public campaign to incorporate impact into its rating criteria and include community voice as a core part of the criteria. GreatNonprofits already solicits beneficiary feedback through an open call for reviews.

Unfortunately, unlike the private sector, nonprofit customers (who are often low-income or otherwise disadvantaged) are not in the habit of rating the services they receive. To get that information, you have to go to the source, which can be labor intensive and requires specialized training to obtain accurate results. As I posited with my co-authors in The New Volunteer Workforce, this is the kind of skilled work that volunteers can and want to do.

Recruiting and training volunteers to get customer feedback seems like a common sense approach that serves several aims. Nonprofits want to make an impact in the communities they are serving, but they are faced with having to do more with less. If they recruit and train community volunteers, they keep costs low, build individual capacity, and build community capacity.

Essentially, the act of getting feedback could become a virtuous circle of training, capacity building, community engagement and organizational learning and development.

Do you know of service programs that are building community feedback into their evaluation plans? Feel free to contact me at swashburn [at] cns [dot] gov.

Susannah Washburn is the Senior Advisor in the Office of Strategy and Special Initiatives at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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