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Evaluating Programs? Ask Clients What They Think

Nonprofits need to get a lot better at asking clients what they think — and acting on the information they receive, says Peter York, director of research for TCC Group, a management-consulting company that advises charities.

Information from beneficiaries can help organizations improve their programs and spark new ideas for fighting tough problems. For real-world examples of charities using client feedback to strengthen their programs, read an opinion piece from The Chronicle’s current issue.

Too often, nonprofits are uncomfortable asking clients what they think about programs and fail to appreciate the value of their feedback, argues Mr. York. Instead, he says, charities prefer to ask employees for their comments and suggestions, and hire outside evaluators.

“Self-reporting has gotten such a bad rap,” says Mr. York, “and the entire private sector would just guffaw at this.”

Customer Satisfaction

Businesses, he says, are relentless in their efforts to gauge customer sentiments. When for-profit health-care systems want to know how well they’re performing, they ask patients, says Mr. York.

“You put that same health service in the nonprofit sector,” he says, “and now you’ve got to hire someone to observe and gather secondary data and do everything possible because we can’t trust that they’ll tell us whether they feel better.”

Charity officials are reluctant to own up to their discomfort with client feedback, says Mr. York, who says he sees it when his company is hired to evaluate nonprofit programs.

“The minute I start saying I’m going to survey and interview and hold focus groups with your recipients, they’ll say they like it,” he says. “But now all of a sudden, you’ve got a lot of chefs in the kitchen going, ‘No, you can’t ask that.’ It’s really a challenge.”

And that’s unfortunate, says Mr. York: “What our field pejoratively labels self-report is the most unbiased data you’re going to get.”

Go deeper: What do you think? Join The Chronicle on Tuesday, July 10, at noon U.S. Eastern time for a live online discussion about how charities can seek feedback and new ideas from the people they serve.

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