The Chronicle of Philanthropy (CFED)
By: Nicole Wallace
March 18, 2012
Employee feedback helps nonprofits refine programs
Before new employees hit their three-month anniversary at the Corporation for Enterprise Development, Andrea Levere, the nonprofit's president, takes them to lunch to ask their impressions of the organization and what ideas they have for improving it.
"I've been here a really long time," says Ms. Levere. "You can stop seeing new things."
Those conversations have led to a mentor program that matches junior staff members with more seasoned employees at the antipoverty organization and an internal newsletter designed to cut down on the number of all-staff e-mail messages.
Ms. Levere says a big part of her job as a leader is seeking a wide variety of perspectives: "That's where you get the initial thought, Oh, there's another way to do this."
Like Ms. Levere, many nonprofit leaders believe that for their organizations to move forward, they need to harness the insight of employees. Instead of hoping that exchange of ideas happens informally, they're finding creative ways to solicit feedback on how programs are going, what they're hearing from clients, and how the groups can improve their work.
Officials say their efforts reflect an approach to leadership that emphasizes participation and debate over top-down control.
Workers who carry out an organization's programs and interact with clients have an important vantage point, says Chris Krehmeyer, chief executive of Beyond Housing, a nonprofit that helps low-income families in St. Louis rent or buy housing.
Each year Mr. Krehmeyer spends at least one day with employees who carry out each of the functions in the organization, from the workers who counsel first-time homebuyers to the people who manage the group's rental properties.
His goal is to get feedback and build the rapport that will make employees feel comfortable coming to him and other managers with ideas and concerns in the future.
"Maintenance guys get a lot of information," says Mr. Krehmeyer. "So I put on my jeans, my work boots, and my Beyond Housing T-shirt, and I go out with the maintenance guys, so I can hear their perspectives."
During a recent visit to one of the group's apartment buildings, Mr. Krehmeyer spoke with a single mother who had struggled to get her GED degree.
The young woman didn't pass the math portion of the test until her seventh try but didn't give up because she was determined to qualify for nurse-assistant training and eventually earn more money for her family.
Mr. Krehmeyer says sharing her story with employees spurred discussion about how the organization could acknowledge clients "when they clear a significant life hurdle."
But not everyone is convinced that employee ideas by themselves can improve organizations.
Too often power dynamics and the personal biases of the people involved-both managers and the rank and file-distort charities' efforts to collect and analyze information, says Peter York, chief research and learning officer at TCC Group, a management-consulting company that advises nonprofits.
Organizations, he says, need to devote a lot more time to asking clients what they think. Given a confidential way to share their thoughts, beneficiaries will provide "the most unbiased data you're going to get," he says.
And when organizations ask employees for their opinions, Mr. York recommends starting with a survey to give everyone an equal voice and the chance to share their thoughts anonymously.
To get honest feedback, he says, the survey needs to ask tough, specific questions.
"We have this tendency to ask questions that feel good," says Mr. York. "The questions should be so tough that everybody answers three on a scale of one to five. That's where learning happens."
For example, he says, if research studies have identified 10 services clients need to succeed, organizations shouldn't ask employees, Does the organization deliver best practices?
Instead, he says, they should ask about each of the practices individually or what percentage of clients receives all of the services.
For the past five years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri has conducted a simple survey of employees four times a year, which Becky James-Hatter, the group's leader, says has yielded insights the charity has used to improve both its programs and its work culture.
For example, several months ago the survey turned up concerns about employee workloads. Ms. James-Hatter says that in follow-up conversations it became clear that workers were so focused on procedures that it made them feel like "cogs" in a machine and made it difficult to think about the group's mission.
Making a few changes and discussing the problem with workers, she says, has freed them to spend less time in front of their computers and more time with volunteers, children, and their families.
While the surveys have become an important management tool, Ms. James-Hatter warns that charities that seek employee opinions need to make sure they're ready to make changes based on what they hear-and that they can handle potential criticism.
She says the first time her organization conducted the survey, she wasn't prepared for the negative feedback.
Ms. James-Hatter says it was two weeks before she could share the results with her senior managers and start to deal with the criticism constructively: "The last thing you want to do is get mad about the feedback and create an us-versus-them scenario."
Charities must create a culture that values good ideas from throughout the organization and encourages people at all levels to speak up, says Ben Hecht, chief executive of Living Cities, a coalition of grant-makers and financial institutions that seeks to foster innovation in metropolitan areas.
"What you're saying is this 22-year-old may have ideas and approaches that are better than the 50-year-old's," he says. "The 22-year-old has to believe that they can say it with impunity, and the 50 year-old has to be able to not say, 'Who the hell do you think you are?'"
That kind of openness is difficult for groups with a top-down leadership structure, says Mr. Hecht: "Hierarchy just squashes that because hierarchy says the people at the top know more than the people at the bottom."
Year Up, a nonprofit that helps low-income young adults gain skills and entry-level jobs, tries to make difficult topics easier to broach by giving employees "risk chips"-literally, poker chips-they can use during the group's twice-a-year "intercession" meetings.
The all-staff gatherings are designed to let the charity reflect "critically and without blame" on the past six months, says Gerald Chertavian, the organization's chief executive. Among the ideas that have grown out of intercession: adding college credit to the Year Up program.
"If you feel like you're saying something that could be very controversial or cause conflict," he says, "you can say, 'I'm using a risk chip,' which creates the space for you to say it in a safe environment."
Innovation happens in an environment in which people aren't afraid to make mistakes or share their ideas, says Mr. Chertavian.
He says his role is to hire staff members with different backgrounds and experiences, make sure everyone gets to voice his or her opinion, and "listen hard."
Says Mr. Chertavian: "It's about seeing my job as much more of a synthesizer of good input rather than a decision maker on everything."