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The Simple Act of REALLY Listening

By Nate Mandel, CEO Program Innovation Associate

Listening is one of the most important skills associated with effective leaders and employees. This simple act builds trust and empathy with clients and often leads to much more effective outcomes. So why is listening one of the most overlooked skill sets in business and nonprofits? My colleagues and I at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a national nonprofit that helps returning citizens develop the necessary skills and confidence to find and retain employment, recognized this was a place for improvement and set out to build a listening culture – one that makes listening a cornerstone of everything we do. This past week we celebrated our success at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conference in Boston, MA.

In front of a packed audience with standing room only, three CEO graduates, Antoine Ragland, Warren Sanders, and Luis Fonseca, accompanied by CEO staffer Christine Kidd, Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) Director of Program Strategy Jehan Velji and  Fay Twersky, Director of the Effective Philanthropy Group and the Hewlett Foundation, shared their experiences at CEO. Antoine, Warren and Luis all provided critical feedback to CEO employees that helped CEO staff better understand client experiences and informed changes we made to improve the client experience for everyone. This feedback loop is part of an organization wide project called Constituent Voice in which CEO systematically seeks feedback from clients through text messages, in person focus groups and anonymous surveys.

The CEP conference gathered foundation leaders from across the country to discuss strategies for utilizing data and insight to enable higher performance in philanthropy. The supporters of our Constituent Voice project, Hewlett Foundation, Ford Foundation and EMCF, are all part of a philanthropic collaboration called the Fund for Shared Insight that help nonprofits and foundations develop feedback loops and ensure the individuals they serve have a seat at the table when making program decisions. Antoine, Warren and Luis are living examples of this intention in action. Each of them shared both their experience working with CEO while elaborating on the ways in which providing feedback helped them achieve their employment goals. For Mr. Fonseca, staff were able to respond to a low score he provided in a text message survey and send him out on an interview for a driving position the following week, where he currently works and has been twice promoted. For Mr. Sanders and Mr. Ragland, providing feedback during focus groups allowed CEO to better address their frustration regarding wait times for signing up to work sites as well as concerns over anonymity in providing feedback.

My colleague Christine then expounded upon the importance of not just listening to feedback but acting upon it. Since formally launching Constituent Voice we have made important program changes including altering the start time of CEO’s orientation class from 7am to 8am and adding job descriptions to the list of our job sites, so clients could better prepare for the tasks they would handle that day. While these changes might seem simple, they have improved the quality of our program and increased both client satisfaction and longer term engagement in CEO’s program.

As the session came to a close, audience members applauded CEO’s systematic use of feedback but also raised important considerations for funders and service providers to consider. While many saw the importance of participant input, there was concern that foundations could act too aggressively if asking grantees to collect this input or by holding organizations accountable for being responsive when they may not yet have the capacity to do so effectively. Fay made the important point that a robust feedback system can increase proximity to the people whom staff and volunteers are helping. She implored foundations to support the simple practice of enabling organizations to listen, truly listen, to those whose lives they seek to improve. Our presentation and the ensuing discussion was an important step in building more support for feedback loops and listening. As my colleagues and I prepared to leave, the audience left us with a standing ovation – a clear sign that everyone was listening – but perhaps the most rewarding moment of all was when Antoine remarked that the experience “was surprising, because these people really wanted to hear me.”

CEO is grateful for the opportunity to build this foundational practice. This work and experience would not be possible without our thought partners and funders from the Fund for Shared Insight, Keystone Accountability, the Hewlett Foundation, Feedback Labs, and others.

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