Thoughts on Feedback

I’ve been thinking a lot about “feedback” these days.

feed·back  (ˈfēdˌbak)  noun,  1. information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.  synonyms: response, reaction, comments, criticism;

Without feedback, what do we have? Ironically, we wouldn’t know, would we?

Feedback is critically important in all phases of life – family, work, social – we need feedback so we can see where we are, where we were and how we’re doing. Feedback allows us to plot where we’re going and how we plan to get there.  Feedback helps frame our dialogue by how it engages with the environment around the conversation. Loud or quiet, clear or garbled, nice or angry, its reflection in the acoustics actually contributes to the discourse.

Facebook is what it is for how it facilitates feedback in every corner of its business model. Snopes puts a check on inaccurate viral feedback by making sure the actions are relevant to the facts.

Can we live without feedback? Sure, for a little bit. But without it we’d all be sitting on little islands, happy for just being. Even folks who like to work and play outside of the box – that march to their own drummer and shrug off what other people think – need feedback to learn where their box stops and where their experience begins.

A lack of feedback can be troublesome. At work it’s required to help us monitor and boost our performance. At home our kids need feedback for healthy development and our spouse for a healthy relationship. Feedback from our friends helps keep us honest and on our toes. Customers give us feedback by what they buy or don’t buy, how much they spend or don’t spend, and how often they walk through our doors.

Feedback is a compass that we use every day to keep us focused and pointed in the right direction.

In fundraising, feedback can shape our organization. Donors & funders provide feedback by responding, or not responding, to our appeals. Their response not only provides direction and reinforcement, it sometimes makes the difference on whether our cause lives or dies. Our constituents provide feedback in their response to the programs and services we provide. Are we helping them? Usually we can tell. And if we’re not, we know to try something different.

Some purposeful organizations actively seek out feedback. They conduct donor surveys, they crunch data, they meet with their supporters, and they proactively build engagement tools into their programs. Not only will these groups be positioned to take advantage of early opportunities, they position themselves as the kind of cause people enjoy supporting and these folks like to share news of their support with their networks.

Too often people withhold feedback because sharing it might make them feel uncomfortable – or they don’t want their feedback for others make those folks feel bad. Whether praise or criticism, they’d much rather keep it to themselves then risk an overly positive or negative reaction. But by not sharing they are actually hurting themselves and the people they need to offer it to.

Feedback impacts behavior. It’s the rungs on a ladder for improved performance. No feedback, no climbing. If we stray from the path, feedback sets us straight again. On those days where we don’t get feedback – and they happen to me – we wonder if we’re making a difference or if we’re doing what folks think we should be doing.

To me, when non-profits find themselves with their backs to the wall, they tend to circle the wagons, close the loop, and short circuit feedback. Communication becomes tightly controlled, almost sterile. When they need their donors the most, they cut themselves off from everything except for their donations. This is probably the time when they should do just the opposite. Open up, share, talk about their challenges and what may be need to solve them. Offer supporters a chance to get more involved. Sure, they may say things the organizations doesn’t want to hear, but they may learn something too. And all will be stronger for it.

The New York State Funders Alliance, which includes members of the former WNY Grantmakers Association, brought author and thought leader David Grant to town last November to talk about how success is defined and articulated in the social sector. A good part of the discussion was wrapped around feedback, notably between grantmakers and grantees. He made a good case for incorporating more qualitative measures in program assessments but he also spoke about using feedback as a means to shape future activity, not just to rate past performance. I think he’s right.

Feedback, when used wrong, can be dangerous. Today’s feedback can go to extremes (think about our political climate) where a response to one small action or thought can go viral and completely repaint the picture, fair or unfair, leading or misleading. On the other hand, our desire to be politically correct can color our lens so that the feedback’s intent or content is missed or misunderstood.

We all need feedback – honest, straightforward and unfiltered. You can share your feedback to this piece by commenting, liking or sharing. Or you can walk away and leave me wondering if anyone read it, understood it, or agreed (or disagreed) with what was said. Feedback is not a craving, but an important part of a nutritious daily diet.

So as you go about your day, think about how your share feedback and who you share it with.  Make sure it’s provided graciously, respectfully and in a way that adds value to our relationships. You’ll know when you’ve done it right and you’ll be better for it.

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