Fostering a feedback-friendly culture could save your charity from extinction

by Susheila Juggapah

Hearing feedback is hard. It’s challenging to hear what other people think about our work, the way we operate or our ideas. But feedback fuels change. It super powers creativity and speeds up impact. Yes, it can be uncomfortable at times. But it keeps us accountable to the people we serve. 

The third sector already knows transparency is important, particularly for building donor confidence. Organisations can use transparency to improve trust with staff. They can also use it to create more inclusive organisations. But this only works with a commitment to openness.

It’s time for charity leaders to harness this superpower for all aspects of charity business. To do it successfully, charities should aim to create an open and transparent culture that embraces giving feedback, receiving feedback, and making it part of the organisation’s culture.

Listening is our only option

We now live in a world that simply won’t tolerate products that don’t suit our specific needs.

Tales of Blockbusters and Kodak are frequently used to remind us that even household names cannot rely on their legacy. They must deliver products customers want.

We’ve also have enough of inauthentic brands that don’t walk the walk because we can see right through them. This goes for charities too. The Charity Commission’s 2018 Trust in charities report says,

“The public want greater authenticity not just more transparency, they want to know that charities are what they say they are.”

And it’s not just your external audiences. Staff have had enough too. For example, on pay transparency, a YouGov poll found the majority of Brits (56%) would back pay transparency measures to tackle income inequality

There are also indications younger people expect to be able to see what’s going on inside organisations before joining. In a survey by PwC of millennials in the workplace, 76% of those in the financial services sector said they considered the employer’s record on equality and diversity when accepting their current role. 

Critically, people really want to know their opinion is valued. Former Baxter International CEO and now a clinical professor of leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Harry Kraemer believes good leaders listen to the people around them. Leaders, he says, “establish trust because they demonstrate they really care about what each person has to say.” Without trust, the people around you will not give you honest feedback. 

The technology is there. It’s only a matter of time before users, supporters, staff and volunteers give up on established charities to set up their own campaigns, movements and networks. If charities don’t become more inclusive, they risk becoming redundant. 

How to do it: lessons from a bank 

Like a conversation, open cultures need someone to listen and ideally act on the feedback. One way to show you’re listening to be honest about what you’ve heard. 

The fastest growing companies are putting transparency at the heart of their business. Take the digital challenger bank Monzo which has seen phenomenal growth recently. In 2016, it set the record for quickest crowd-funding campaign in history when it raised £1m in 96 seconds on Crowdcube.

Monzo differs from traditional banks because it openly expresses the relationship it has with its users. It prides itself on transparency and community, aiming to meet the needs of the Monzo tribe in ways traditional banks have failed to do for so long. Referencing its community, Monzo, says: 

You hold us accountable and help us focus on what matters

Monzo has published a lot on its internal culture. The bank regularly publishes data on how representative and diverse it is internally, looking at things like gender identity, ethnicity, age, disability, caring responsibilities, education, religion, sexual orientation and more. It has also shown its progress over the years and laid out an action plan. 

The bank also uses lots of techniques to prioritise transparency. For example, meetings are open to everyone, even if you just want to listen. The organisation also has email transparency, which means by default, every email that is sent can be read by anyone in the company. They also give everyone access to documents and encourage everyone to question the decisions made in governance meetings with the board of directors and the executive committee. 

The result: Monzo isn’t just telling you it’s open and honest, it’s being open and honest. Its rapid growth is testament to the faith the community place in it. But ultimately, Monzo is a bank, not a campaign or movement. So if a bank can create a culture of openness and honesty, a charity certainly can. 

Tips for building feedback-friendly organisations

There are a lot of examples of how to make your organisation more open. Here are some easy reads:

The idea behind this, is that it prevents problems from staying hidden in one small part of the company, and makes sure everyone’s thinking about how to solve the problems we have.”

Embracing feedback could radically change your organisation. It could mean you recruit more diversely, get closer to your audience’s needs and build trust with all aspects of your organisation. Or you could wait for something like Monzo to swoop in and leave you obsolete. 

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Susheila Juggapah is a digital professional and former editor at CharityComms, the membership network for charity communicators. She writes about diversity and representation in the third sector. 

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