Dennis Whittle, Executive Director of Feedback Labs, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Dennis Whittle, Executive Director of Feedback Labs, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.

 

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Dennis Whittle

Denver: My next guest is a most interesting fellow– through his own life experience, and as a result of some of the institutions where he has worked. He has been able to re-imagine the world upside down, not in the top-down way that most of us are accustomed to, but rather bottom-up.  And he has thought about how to go about it and the implications it would have for the global society. He is Dennis Whittle, the Founder and Executive Director of Feedback Labs. Good evening, Dennis, and welcome to The Business of Giving. 

 

Dennis: Nice to be here, Denver. 

Denver: Tell us about Feedback Labs and what your organization does.

Dennis: Feedback Labs is a network of 200 organizations working in aid and philanthropy, who are dedicated to hearing what the people themselves want to make their lives better, and whether we’re helping them get it.  And if not, what should we do differently? 

Denver: Well, before we get into that work more deeply, I want to frame it if I can, Dennis, in a somewhat larger context. And I know you maintain an innovation– and I mean real transformative innovation that leads to disruption– occurs in waves.  And you see that occurring now in the philanthropic sector due to three things, three waves; two of which you’ve had a very prominent hand in.  So let’s briefly discuss each. The first is donor-advised funds.

Dennis: Donor-advised funds were pioneered in the late 80s and 90s,  and they are a way of making it possible for ordinary people to have foundations. You and I, Denver, can with a few thousand dollars create our own foundation. It can be the Denver Frederick Foundation and the Dennis Whittle Foundation. It’s enabled us to be ordinary Oprahs, as someone said; we can be Bill Gates. Donor-advised funds are a way that we can get professionalized services around our own giving. It’s a really pretty dramatic revolution in giving. 

Denver: The second wave of innovation is crowdfunding, of which you are a pioneer, perhaps the pioneer. Tell us about crowdfunding. 

Dennis: In the 80s and 90s when I worked at the World Bank, I noticed that if you were an expert, you could have your ideas heard and funded. If you were not part of the World Bank/ USAID foundation aristocracy, it was not possible to have your voice heard or your money used. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Mari Kuraishi and I left the World Bank to create GlobalGiving which was the first ever global crowdfunding website. Allowed anybody in the world with a good idea to pitch their idea and anybody in the world to fund it. That was five years before the word “crowdfunding” ever appeared on Google. 

Denver: That’s right! The final wave is feedback… which we just briefly discussed in the opening. So, Dennis, I want you to take these three waves of innovation together… What do you see as the changes that are going to occur as a result of the way that philanthropy is done around the world?

Dennis: Traditionally, philanthropy, as well as international aid, have been, as you said earlier, top-down. We’ve had groups of experts in big organizations decide what the world’s problems are, decide what the solutions to those problems are, and decide whether those solutions actually worked in practice. Very closed system. These three waves that you described are creating a true open market place in ideas, where the best ideas that serve people’s interests succeed. Feedback Labs is the third prong, as you say. The first two prongs enabled open access for donors and people with ideas, and the third prong is to allow the voice of the people to say, “We want this.” or “We don’t want this.” or ” We like this, but it could be better.” That’s what the feedback part is all about. So, the first two parts are about access, and the third part is about voice. 

Technology has revolutionized the possibilities of getting feedback from people in the most remote places around the world, as well as here in the inner city. It’s now possible to get someone’s opinion by phone for less than a penny anywhere in the world. Radical changes in technology that opened up new possibilities.

Denver: That’s a very interesting take on that. The philanthropic sector is one of the few that has not been disrupted yet, and that is one of the more interesting perspectives of how it is going to be disrupted– in bringing those three waves together. Let’s discuss feedback in the non-profit sector. It’s interesting that the customer satisfaction movement in this country… and surveys… and how a consumer thought…. Private companies have been doing that back since the 1960s, but this has only recently reached the nonprofit sector. Why do you think it took so long?

Dennis: The private sector really has no choice but to listen to feedback. If customers don’t like their products, they don’t buy them, and companies go out of business, or they must adjust. The philanthropy sector and the aid sector has been more insulated. There’s not the exit possibility. If people don’t like what you’re doing, you don’t suffer a blow to your bottom line. In the consumer sector, they’ve really had no choice. The philanthropy sector has had a choice, and the good news is that they are making that choice now. 

Denver: What is feedback good at solving… or helping to solve?  And what things does it not address?

Dennis: Feedback is good at getting information upfront about what people want to make their lives better, and it’s good at getting information during project implementation about the quality of what they’re getting. Those can have very profound effects on the impact of philanthropy. This type of short-loop feedback is not always good at analyzing big data sets and long-term evaluations… a lot more abstract and technical issues. So, it can’t solve all problems, but it’s very good at solving some of the problems.

Denver: Good distinction. Well, I want to dig a little bit deeper there and have you walk us through the process of feedback.  Specifically, how do the organizations go about gathering feedback?  Are there particular kinds of feedback that are desirable?  And are there certain stages where it is particularly valuable?

Dennis: I think the stage at which it’s valuable can vary, depending on your objective, but let me take you through what we call the closed feedback loop. It has five steps.  First, for the funder to get buy-in from the people that they seek to serve: We have a discussion; we’re going to ask you about this in Stage one. Stage two is collecting the feedback, asking questions and getting the information. Stage three is analyzing it, internally look at the data, look at what you’re hearing. Stage four is to discuss it with the people that you gathered it from, and this seems very simple, but it’s rarely done. Tell people what they  told you and then discuss what it means. Stage five… and this is critical, you’ve got to close the loop by taking action and doing something differently as a consequence of the feedback.

Denver: How is the role of technology changing the way we go about gathering actionable feedback?

Dennis: Technology has revolutionized the possibilities of getting feedback from people in the most remote places around the world, as well as here in the inner city. It’s now possible to get someone’s opinion by phone for less than a penny anywhere in the world. Radical changes in technology have opened up new possibilities. 

 

Denver: Listening to feedback from the beneficiary or end user, that sounds great and it seems to make an awful lot of sense… that it would lead to improved programs and better results.  But I know of a lot of things that seem to make sense… just don’t. Is there any data that shows that this actually leads to better outcomes?

Dennis: Yes, there are some pretty dramatic examples. Here in the United States, the Nurse-Family Partnership has shown– by seeking feedback from the young mothers that they work with– they have been able to radically decrease child disease and increase child welfare. 

Denver: One remarkable organization. 

Dennis: Absolutely fantastic. In places like Uganda, you’re seeing 30% gains in child survival rates. 30%– when feedback is properly done. Very significant gains when it’s done well. 

Denver: Are there some organizations that are reluctant to go about getting feedback because they are afraid of what they’re going to find out? Or maybe more to the point,  afraid that if the funders see that the feedback ain’t all that pretty, it might impact their funding? 

Dennis: This is a big issue and traditionally in the philanthropy sector, there’s been a kind of silent conspiracy between funders and grantees where the grantees pretend that everything went well, and the funders pretend to believe it. It serves everyone’s purpose. I have to say here, Denver, that an organization… or consortium of funders… called the Fund for Shared Insight– which is now 12 major foundations… They’ve gotten together to try to break this cycle, and they’re funding their grantees to listen to the people that they seek to serve. They’re not judging them by what the people say in the first round; they’re judging them by whether they learn from the feedback and improve what they do. I have to tip my hat, I’ve been lucky to be working with Fay Twersky, Hilary Pennington of Hewlett, and Ford and many other foundations… Melinda Tuan, who I know you’ve had on the show. This is a very significant force in the field of philanthropy and feedback.

Denver: Let’s talk about this honest back and forth between funders and grantees at a completely different level, and that’s actually getting the feedback. How do you promote or try to assure  candor when you’re asking these beneficiaries for feedback? I might not like everything that’s going on, Dennis, but I might not also see any upside in biting the hand that feeds me. 

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Denver Frederick and Dennis Whittle at the AM970 studio

Dennis: This is a big issue for many of our members. As you say, they may not like everything, but they’re afraid of getting everything taken away from them. It’s part of the closed feedback loop.  You have to talk to people ahead of time and tell them and build trust and say, “Here’s what we are trying to do, and please give us your feedback.” Sometimes you can seek feedback in an anonymous way, which is often a good way to do it so that people feel that there won’t be retribution.  But nothing will happen unless people see that their feedback results in better programs and services.  And once they start to see that flywheel turning… I call it “ the flywheel of trust,” then  you get greater and greater candor.

Denver: I guess there’s probably nothing worse in the world than getting feedback and doing nothing, because if that doesn’t bring cynicism, I don’t know what would. 

Dennis: That’s a big issue. We’ve all done so many surveys over the years, and they’ve  been kind of exploitative. We haven’t told people what they said much less what we’re doing about it. At Feedback Labs, they’re trying to promote a culture of what you said, what we did. All of our members tell people they’re seeking to serve:  what did you say?  what did we do?  It doesn’t mean that you can always respond to everything, but as long as people know that you’re considering it, you’ve heard it, and you’re trying to do something to respond to it… that builds trust and gets the flywheel turning. 

Denver: Makes all the difference in the world. Better to have never started to get the feedback if nothing changes. Getting feedback from those who serve: what’s working well… and what’s not working so well is certainly worth while on its own.  And I understand what you’ve been saying, but it probably can be even of more value if it can be benchmarked against organizations who are operating in the same field of endeavor. Are there opportunities or platforms where organizations can do that?     

Dennis: This is the big project that a number of people are working on right now. The Fund for Shared Insight has funded a group called Listen for Good which is helping over a hundred domestic nonprofits seek feedback from the people they’re seeking to serve and then benchmark against each other. David Bonbright’s Feedback Comments is doing the same in a slightly different market. He’s from Keystone Accountability. There are several that are doing this… Groups like Charity Navigator and GuideStar are also trying to figure out how to do this. Stay tuned!  There are going to be some exciting developments.

Denver: Let me pick up on Charity Navigator: are they taking into account beneficiary feedback the nonprofits are collecting, maybe even publishing?  And are they reflecting that in their ratings? 

Dennis: Charity Navigator is a big member of Feedback Labs, and they’re working together closely with groups such as GlobalGiving to indicate on their site which groups are seeking feedback and whether they are learning from the feedback. Right now as we speak, they’re working on the algorithms and the ratings mechanism to show that on their site. 

Denver: That’s good news. Is there any insights coming to this issue from a somewhat different perspective, and that would be direct cash transfers? While that may not be feedback in the pure sense of the word, it does really help inform how people go about spending this money which has no strings attached to it, and then compare that to the kind of help or aid organizations are providing. Is there any learning coming from this?

Dennis: Absolutely! This is cousin to feedback.  And when you give people direct cash transfers, there’s no more direct feedback than watching what they do with it; that works very well. They have shown for certain types of things.. as we move up the chain toward more collectively provided, or public goods, that are funded through GlobalGiving and other groups– where people can’t purchase them individually, they need to pool their money. The common element of what we’re doing is seeking feedback from people. What do they want? What do the people themselves want?  Not… what do you and I think they should get!  But what do they want? And to give them choice of providers as well. 

Denver: I would even think that the way people go about spending their money is even better than a survey. It’s not just talk; it really is action in the most pure sense of the word. 

Dennis: That’s right! They’ve revealed preferences that way.  

Denver: Your feedback superpower, as I’ve heard, is taking feedback and turning these voices into conversations. How in the world do you go about doing that?

Dennis: This comes back to the question of trust… and of what you said at the top of the show, which is top-down and bottom-up. I think we’re seeing most of the dramatic gains when you hear from the voice of the people what they want, and then you bring in technical and expert perspectives on what seems to work in other contexts. And you really build a conversation that goes beyond, “I want X and you give me X”….to “I want X , but let’s talk about that… either about a better way to get X… or maybe you want Y because that’s actually going to result in something that’s going to make your life better.” We call those generative conversations.  And when you see this at work, that’s when you see the dramatic improvements and indicators– child mortality and then other social service indicators. 

Denver: You’ve already talked about the Fund for Shared Insight and Listen for Good, but I’m going to ask you to talk about it a little bit more because they’re kind of a consortium or collaboration that come together with very key actors and is really speaking to the momentum behind this movement. Tell us about that and where you see it going.

Dennis: The Fund for Shared Insight and Feedback Labs kind of emerged at the same time. They emerged out of conversations that people were having in the philanthropy sector and in  the aid sector and talking about the issues that we’ve been talking about on the show. In both cases, a group just decided to get together and try to change norms. In the case of Fund for Shared Insight, eight major foundations decided to pool not only their money, but their brain power and their convening power and their influence in the sector. Between Feedback Labs and Listen for Good and Fund for Shared Insight, there are now well over 400 organizations that are part of this conversation. Policy groups, funding groups, implementing groups, technology groups, advocacy groups, you name it. So, there’s something about the power of creating these interlocking networks that seems to be spreading both the idea and the practice of feedback very rapidly.

Denver: You know in this sector:  what gets funded, gets done. Despite what you just said about these 400 groups,  are you satisfied with the level of funding that Feedback is currently receiving?

Dennis: It’s only the tip of the iceberg of what we’ve done, and I think more resources into this could have a huge impact, not only on the groups that are involved, but on the returns to philanthropy as a whole. 

…when you put people into a system that does not face competition and that is top-down, and it has too much power, you get a culture where people are trying to impress each other more than having an impact on the ground where they are working. They’re listening to the voice of their colleagues rather than listening to the voice of the people that they seek to serve. That creates strange dynamics that are really unfortunate and sad.

Denver: I want to speak to you a little bit about corporate culture, work culture. Before I talk about yours, you mentioned before that you spent about nearly 15 years at the World Bank. How would you describe that culture, at least when you were there?

Dennis: The World Bank brings together some of the best minds in the world.  And when I was there, I think it’s clear that it was the best collection of brain power on development in the world. Yet when you put people into a system that does not face competition– and that is top- down, and it has too much power, you get a culture where people are trying to impress each other more than having an impact on the ground where they are working. They’re listening to the voice of their colleagues rather than listening to the voice of the people that they seek to serve. That creates strange dynamics that are really unfortunate and sad. The people themselves that worked there, I have to say, they don’t like it. It gnaws away at you.  And things are changing now, but that’s the way it was.

Denver: I know it was gnawing away at you until you finally spoke up a bit, and you did speak up.

Dennis: I think Mari Kuraishi and I were lucky that we had a President at the World Bank back then, Jim Wolfensohn who encouraged us to speak up. He said, “This place needs an overhaul. ” and we said, “What do you want us to do?  And he said: “Rattle some cages.” So, he gave us permission… and some of our other bosses as well. We were lucky.

Denver: Getting to your present day, you were one of the co-founders of GlobalGiving, and they certainly have an exceptional corporate culture– so much so that we featured it on The Business of Giving a couple of months ago. I would imagine you took many of the things from there and brought them over to Feedback Labs and maybe added a few things along the way. Tell us about the corporate culture of Feedback Labs today.

Dennis: The common element in each case is bringing together a group of people and saying, “We have this crazy idea that we’re going to change the world. It’s probably impossible, but we’re going to try it anyway”… and to create almost a sense of great adventure that leads people to amazing creativity and effort and commitment and persistence. It’s difficult because sometimes in the early days of GlobalGiving, Mari and I wondered if we were crazy. It’s working very well now, but back then, it was very difficult.

Denver: People don’t appreciate that too.  It always seems like a natural after it’s been a success, but it certainly wasn’t easy.

Dennis: Looking back, part of that I think:  the task of leadership is to create a sense of optimism and momentum among your team. It’s not easy, but in my experience, that’s the way that you can make dramatic breakthroughs.  

Denver: It seems sometimes having these “mission impossibles,” people really warm to that kind of challenge, don’t they?

Dennis: Exactly! That’s a great way to put it, “a mission impossible.” I’m going to put that sign up in my office when I go back. I tried to import that same philosophy to Feedback Labs which is the “mission impossible philosophy.”  This is probably crazy; we probably can’t do it, but it’s the way the world should be. 

Denver: We just might. Let me close with this Dennis: your childhood and some of the things you encountered along the way really helped sensitize you to some of the things that we have discussed this evening. Tell us about that and how it has helped inform your work.

Dennis: I, in retrospect, was very lucky to have a childhood where part of it: I was well-off and a respected part of the community. Another part, I was below the poverty line and shunned. I really saw what it feels like to be shunned and to not have my voice heard. Along the way, many people gave me opportunities, scholarships or encouragement to make my voice heard, and gave me the opportunity to pull myself out of the life below the poverty line. That experience of my childhood has informed hugely my attitude toward the world now. How do you give people access?  How do you give them voice?  How do you give them an opportunity, so that the people who are willing to take the initiative and have their voice heard are able to succeed. 

Denver: Yeah, because you really understand firsthand what it’s like not to have it. 

Dennis: Exactly. Relatively speaking, many people had a worse childhood and challenges than I did.  But I think being able to see both sides of that equation enabled me to feel  viscerally what it’s like not to have your voice heard or not to have access.

Denver: Wonderful perspective. Dennis Whittle, the founder and Executive Director of Feedback Labs. I want to thank you so much for being on the program this evening. Tell us about your website, the kind of information people might find there, and how they can become involved or help support your work.

Dennis: The website is feedbacklabs.org.  You will be able to sign up for a newsletter there; you can send us an email to say you want to be involved in certain events. We have a large number of events where people can talk about and collaborate on these issues, and you’d be most welcome, so http://www.feedbacklabs.org.

Denver: Fantastic! You’re doing some exciting stuff, and it was a real pleasure to have you on the program, Dennis.

Dennis: It was a great pleasure. Thanks, Denver!

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Denver Frederick and Dennis Whittle


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving/.

 

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