Constituency Listening: Using Feedback to Improve Philanthropy


Philanthropist's Field Guide

Constituency Listening: Using Feedback to Improve Philanthropy

In any philanthropic endeavor, listening to and incorporating feedback from beneficiaries is essential to generating meaningful social progress. Regardless of the issue area, elevating the voices of those who endure the entrenched problems you aim to rectify—and making efforts to understand their lived experiences—are necessary actions to achieving transformative change. 

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How can you solicit feedback from target beneficiaries?

There are various methods for gathering feedback and insights from your constituents. You can engage with beneficiaries directly via site visits, in-person interviews, focus groups, or open-community forums. You can also obtain constituent feedback indirectly through grantees, surveys, or polling results. 

When soliciting feedback from target beneficiaries, be cognizant of power dynamics. Donors are perceived to have more power and authority than nonprofit staff, direct service providers, and community members who are being served. When such power imbalances exist, it can be difficult for beneficiaries to provide honest and open feedback. To limit a power imbalance, create a comfortable environment for feedback by positioning yourself as a partner and collaborator who is equal to every other stakeholder. 

For maximum transparency, consider sharing anonymized, aggregated feedback, and think about how you plan to incorporate the feedback into your philanthropic activities. This approach can facilitate goodwill and rapport building between you and the community. 

When should you solicit feedback?

Strategic philanthropists understand that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. With that in mind, seek input from—and even collaborate with—community members whenever possible. At the very least, ensure that you are gathering feedback, insights, and inspiration from target beneficiaries during the design, implementation, and evaluation phases of a social change effort. 

  • Listening during the early phases means that you can understand the constituents' interests, pain points, needs, and desires. This, in turn, can help inform the ultimate structure of the project or initiative. 

  • Constituency listening in the implementation phase allows you to remain nimble and adjust the program according to the real needs of the population being served. This, of course, leads to a more effective program overall. 

  • Gathering beneficiary feedback after the completion of the program provides valuable insights for program evaluation and success measurement. Taking the ideas gained and lessons learned from this phase can help other philanthropists refine their approaches for future projects and initiatives.

It is important to remember that constituency listening is not a one-time activity. To maximize the benefits of constituency listening, be sure to stay engaged with your beneficiaries, and seek continuous feedback that can guide your philanthropic activities. 

How can you effectively engage with the community members to obtain feedback? 

Collecting feedback can be done informally, via ad hoc meetings or impromptu conversations. It can also take a more structured and methodological approach.

Adopting practices such as human-centered design and trust-based philanthropy can help you build a rapport with community members and co-create social change strategies, together. Doing so will likely improve the effectiveness of your philanthropy. 

  • Human-centered design is the practice of co-designing solutions with the people you’re seeking to serve, focusing on their needs, interests, and input. It starts with having a sound understanding of the beneficiaries’ needs and ends with an adaptive solution specifically designed from the beneficiaries’ perspective that meets their needs. Human-centered design is usually conducted in three phases: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. 

    • During the inspiration phase, you learn to better understand people by observing their lives and hearing their needs from their perspective. 

    • During the ideation phase, you generate ideas based on the information you gathered and refine your solution by seeking and incorporating more feedback from your beneficiaries. 

    • During the implementation phase, you bring the idea to life by implementing the solution at scale and generating impact. 

  • Quality human-centered design requires empathy, listening, and iteration. Incorporating human-centered design in your constituency listening can help you deepen your engagement with the community. 

  • By focusing on building trust among stakeholders, trust-based philanthropy can reduce the traditional power imbalance between donors and beneficiaries and create a collaborative environment conducive to open and honest feedback. Trust-building requires championing the ideas of power-sharing, equity, humility, transparency, curiosity, and collaboration. 

    • Rather than taking a traditional, top-down approach to philanthropy, see yourself as equal to nonprofit staff and the community members that they serve.

    • Building trust also entails taking time to know your beneficiaries and develop deep ties with influential stakeholders, such as a community’s nonprofit and religious leaders. 

    • Build trust by enhancing the transparency of your decision-making process and engaging with your beneficiaries to collective brainstorm solutions. 

Case Study: Elevating the Patient Voice in the Mental Health Field

In 2018, the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy, in partnership with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, set out to determine a collective way to tackle the mental health crisis in the United States by asking the very people who are the most expert—those living with mental illness. Together, we released a “Supporting Wellness” survey to people living with depression and bipolar. We formed this survey to better understand individual experiences of depression and bipolar across the lifespan. The survey asked participants about the impact these conditions had on respondents’ lives, how they define wellness, and what research they think should be prioritized. 

By bringing lived experience into the equation, we hope to support ongoing efforts to redefine research priorities and treatment development for a variety of mental health conditions. Ultimately, these voices will guide therapeutics and reconfigure well-being goals. Our survey demonstrated that individuals living with depression and bipolar are savvy about treatment gaps and what research needs to be done. We are confident that their input will bring us all closer to where we need to be to tackle our mental health crisis substantially in the US and around the world.

Additional Resources:

  • Interested in learning more about creating effective feedback loops? Check out The Feedback Lab’s tools and training resources. 

  • An initiative of a funder collaborative, Listen4Good works with funders and nonprofits to build an infrastructure for feedback in the social sector. 

  • Read more about constituency listening in the Milken Institute’s piece on Giving Compass.

  • The mental health field has taken to elevating the patient voice—learn more here

  • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Interaction Institute for Social Change has developed an action guide for engaging community stakeholders.

  • As an example of effective constituency listening, read more about the experience of YouthTruth.

  • Interested in further incorporating human-centered design into your philanthropy? Check out resources provided by, the pioneer of human-centered design. 

  • Curious about trust-based philanthropy? Check out the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project for other foundations’ success stories and resources that can help you adopt trust-based philanthropy. 

Published September 23, 2020