Feedback Labs

The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of Feedback Labs

Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


Denver: We have visited many organizations with thousands and thousands of employees and discussed issues of work culture with them. Most nonprofits, however, have just a few employees who are often asked to wear many hats. And this evening, you will visit one of the very best of that breed, Feedback Labs. We’ll start with Dennis Whittle, who was a guest on the show recently, and then hear from the other members of this lean and multi-talented staff.

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Dennis: I’m pleased about several things about this team. One is that any of us—not just me, but any of us can be photocopying one moment and at the White House co-hosting a meeting the next moment. We can be at the World Bank, the White House, a major foundation, leading that meeting and then reassembling back here and preparing for the next one. And what I like best about the team is almost anybody on the team can interchangeably perform those functions. Many teams are very hierarchical where only the top person does it and everybody else serves him or her – that is not the way we operate.

Megan: So there’s still a culture of working hard, but I appreciate the role modeling of “You have other parts of your life. They’re important, too. It’s up to you to figure out how do you work hard and do what’s expected of you, which is a lot, but also figure out the rest of your life and have room for that.” So I appreciate that.

Meg: I think the culture of excellence that Megan touched on also relates to me of the way in which all of us on the Feedback Labs teams do relate to each other, and that the fact that there’s an expectation of excellence in all of the work that we do enables us to have high expectations for ourselves, which enables us as a team to support each other and cut each other some slack when that needs to happen.

And so I think there have been several examples of times when I know I will beat myself up over something I didn’t get in in time. Or if there’s something that I need some help and didn’t realize I was going to need the support that I did, where Sarah and Megan and Dennis and Jordan – everyone is willing to jump in and are able to do so very willingly and graciously without making me feel like I am slacking on that bit of excellence, that we all kind of hold ourselves to such high standards and we all know that each [other are] doing that. And because of that, we have this culture where we respect each other, we know the work is getting done and therefore we’re happy to jump in where we can. And that’s really, really meaningful to me because I know we’ve all had opportunities where we’ve needed that and it just happens without needing to ask for it, and that’s great.

Sarah: To reflect Dennis’ excellence point, we accomplish the work of a 50-person organization with a 4-person organization, and that’s just because we think we can and we go out and do it. And I’m really proud of that fact. But I also think that we are realistic and we take care of each other and that’s how we can continue to do the amount of work and the quality of work that we do.

And so we have the opportunity to be really small, really agile, and spend some of our time thinking really critically about the extra-curricular parts of our job. So whether it’s editing or whether it’s copying or whether it’s graphic design, who really likes to do that thing? How can we shift our work around so that our job is pleasurable and not only sort of effective? But I do think still that bringing your full self to work is critical when there’s only four of you because you don’t have time for interpersonal friction. You just have to kind of lay it on the table, deal with it and move past it.

Dennis: Part of the requirement is to create magic. And I say this quite often – we can’t succeed as a small team in changing the world if we don’t create magic for the people who come into contact with us. So we don’t even do all the work. A lot of people do the work with us. And they do the work with us because whenever they come into contact with Feedback Labs, they feel good. They feel that we are helping make them productive; that we are helping them project their values and the change that they want to see into the world. And so the experience that we create is one thing that I emphasize over and over, probably ad nauseam to everybody, but I’m really proud that the team, that all of us combined create a sense of magic, whether it be at the Summit or whether it be day-to-day work with the people that we come into contact with or with our 200 and some organizations that make part of the feedback network.

Megan: This drumbeat of interacting with the wider 200-plus organization network that really is Feedback Labs, I think keeps us asking: What do the people – the feedback champions who we’re here to support – what are they trying to do and how can we support them to do it? And then how do we bring magic to doing that?

I think the fact that our focus is always there and that we’re asking ourselves how do we do that with excellence, I think keeps us focused on the right thing.

Denver: I want to thank Dennis Whittle, the Executive Director of Feedback Labs and the other who participated in this piece: Sarah Hennessy, Megan Campbell and Meg VanDeusen. You can get this audio, transcript, and pictures just by visiting denverfrederick.wordpress.com.

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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 http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

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?

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