In the third week of our e-course on community engagement in collective impact, we introduce the concept of “feedback loops” and how they can improve your work with community members.

The third week of our e-course on community engagement in collective impact explores how to open up your collective impact initiative to community member feedback. The reading materials and exercise from this week will complement last week’s module, which focused on amplifying the voice of community members in collective impact.

Collective impact leaders must create feedback loops that integrate the opinions, priorities and experiences of community members into how the initiative functions. A “feedback loop,” when used in this context, is a general term for a process that collects and integrates feedback to improve a program or service. Our Director of Collective Impact, Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, says feedback loops are fundamentally about “collecting the information that is needed to know whether or not you are on track.” Feedback loops need to be iterative and support continuous communication. They should help you work with the people you seek to help, so that together you can learn faster and develop lasting solutions.

The value of feedback loops has been highlighted by several organizations recently, including the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Markets for Good and the Fund for Shared Insight. The latter has a specific focus on “closing feedback loops” in a way that acknowledges how feedback was or was not incorporated. A group of social sector leaders recently came together to start an organization, called Feedback Labs, devoted to the concept. We at Living Cities recognize the feedback process as a critical part of our work on collective impact.

Yet, we are still learning about how exactly to integrate feedback so that it can help communities become more engaged with collective impact initiatives. Most recently, our partners in Albuquerque conducted a series of in-depth meetings where the Mayor met with local entrepreneurs to get their input on how the city could encourage entrepreneurship. They worked with the Milwaukee-based firm, Translator, to improve their feedback collection process and remain engaged with community members over time. Translator recommended that Albuquerque create a “companion table” where community members could engage with each other around issues they cared about, and report directly to the initiative on their conversations.

Increasing the capacity of partner organizations in collective impact initiatives to receive feedback well is an important complement to investing in communities. Community members can be actively involved in a program or series of programs, but leaders may still not authentically or systematically incorporate their advice into the design of all elements of the initiative. This dynamic often plays out when community members are placed on boards, but their input is not valued as highly as other members, forcing them into a “token” position. Or when funders work with formal leaders of community organizations and expect community engagement to “trickle down” to the residents themselves.

By collecting data on how community members interact with the services that collective impact initiatives provide, the initiative leaders will be more responsive to community needs. Data collection and evaluation are a fundamental principle of collective impact, so collective impact initiatives are well set up to build these feedback loops into their initiatives. For example, a cradle-to-career collective impact partnership in San Antonio, the P16Plus Council, used a data-driven approach to adapt its services focused on reducing student absenteeism. By partnering closely with school districts they were able to meaningfully engage parents to better understand three root causes of chronic absenteeism: transportation, health/asthma, and lack of awareness. This led to the development and implementation of new strategies which ultimately contributed to the reduction of chronic absenteeism by around 50%.

Investments in strengthening feedback loops with community members can take many forms, from improving survey design to creating constituent relationship management systems to employing Six Sigma techniques. Each of these approaches to building feedback loops focus on improving the process for collecting and managing information about the community members involved in your initiative. As with the approaches to amplifying community voice, your specific engagement goals will help determine which areas in your own initiative need to build better feedback loops.

One resource that may be helpful to organizations involved in collective impact looking to strengthen feedback loops is the research done by the Bridgespan Group on methods for nonprofits to engage with constituents. They list three overarching strategies for how nonprofits can work with communities: gaining input, co-creation and ownership. Not surprisingly, these link up nicely with the IAP2 community engagement spectrum outlined in our first post of the e-course. Organizations can use the Bridgespan framework and/or the community engagement spectrum to consider which components of their initiative need to be strengthened. For example, a backbone organization could already be good at collecting programmatic satisfaction surveys, but still need greater capacity for beneficiaries to have more of a say in setting organizational priorities.

Next week, we will release the fourth module of this e-course, which will focus on what we can learn from the private sector. If you haven’t yet, register now to participate in the e-course.

To discuss community engagement in collective impact, join our Twitter “study hall” on April 3rd at 1pm ET to ask your questions and share your insights. We will be joined by representatives from Feedback Labs and Keystone to help spark and moderate the discussion. Use the hashtag #CEinCI to join in.

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