Many Terms of Reference for evaluations these days expect you to include focus groups and surveys/commentaries from beneficiaries as evidence of whether the intervention worked. But sometimes, this is the only real interaction with the project design or planning process that beneficiaries get. Shocking I hear you cry. Well no, not as much as it should be.
You see, when we thing about accountability these days, we most think about being accountable upwards, to the donor, the supporters, other NGOs and multi-lateral institutions. We don’t always think about being accountable downwards to the beneficiaries in the same way. Few NGOs write annual reports for their beneficiaries. Few NGOs actually include the beneficiaries in their project design (other than in a consultative role after the design has been completed, just to check that the community won’t reject the plan out of hand, but not to seek the community’s input into that design).
Why is it that we spend so much time and effort reporting to the research, academic and donor communities, justifying why our project is so darn good and why it makes such a huge impact, only to repeat the process five years later for a new version of the project or for a new donor because over time the change we thought we had created didn’t actually have much impact after all?
Because being downwardly accountable to beneficiaries is still not considered as central to NGO design and focus.
In the private sector if you launched a product or service that your target customers didn’t want you’d soon go out of business. So companies spend ages and a reasonable R&D fund working with their customers to understand what they want and how they would use a product or a service. To get the product or service design absolutely right. After its launched, companies will constantly ask for feedback, making tweaks and adjustments to their products and services based on what their customers tell them. I bet everyone of you has provided feedback on a product or service as some stage: an app feedback rating, an online survey about a website, an email response form after a conversation with your bank, for example.
It seems however that in the NGO sector we simply don’t expect to ask for this kind of ongoing feedback or think that the processes don’t apply, or that getting this feedback from beneficiaries is too difficult.
I too used to focus mostly on upwards accountability, until I started to do Social Return on Investment, which requires that the beneficiary is put at the centre of the design process from the start. It inverts standard planning theory on its head (which is part of the reason that some find it so controversial – they don’t like losing the power). It is entirely possible to be an NGO and engage in ongoing beneficiary feedback. I’ve seen it done. What I’ve also seen is that those NGOs that do it, often don’t shout about it (because to them its just what they do) and this feedback helps them stay ahead of the curve of trends, issues and emerging needs in communities because they are always there and always listening to their customers – I mean: beneficiaries. And that’s the point isn’t it: your beneficiaries are your customers, your donors are not your customers, they are your investors – or at least that is the role they should be playing.
Is your NGO accountable to its beneficiaries? What role does beneficiary feedback play in your NGO? Have you had experience in using beneficiary feedback to make changes and improvements to your services or activities?