Jeff Edmondson

Using Feedback Loops to Move from Collaboration to Collective Impact : Part 2 in a series on the power of community feedback

Few things in life are certain. But one thing I have learned that comes pretty close to absolutely certain is this: building fish ponds in the rain forest is futile. I learned this first hand as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, Central Africa. I actually had a wonderful experience—I stayed almost four years—but the work I did as a fish farming volunteer the first two simply was not impactful since torrential downpours destroyed most any and every pond we could build. I was puzzled as to how the decision was made by the Peace Corps to open this program. Whose idea was this, anyway?

It turns out that the program was modeled after an existing fish farming program in the Congo, a neighboring country that is different in so many ways. The fact that someone decided that fish farming was a reasonable program in Gabon is a great example of why we need “feedback loops” in the social sector. If anyone had asked and really listened to Gabonese about what they wanted and needed or simply looked at the results of the program over time, there is no doubt that many other priorities would have risen to the top.

I carry this lesson with me today in the work we do to improve educational outcomes nationally through a movement called StriveTogether. We have become the primary example of what has come to be known as collective impact, with over 100 communities in the States and abroad bringing cross-sector partners together to find a new way to address one of our most pervasive social challenges—educational attainment.

Communities doing this work have the discipline to consistently use the growing body of education data to narrow our focus on what matters most, so we invest limited time, talent, and treasure in what really works. The key here is that data is used on an ongoing basis to drive action in a different way than traditional collaboration. We often refer to this as “continuous improvement,” but it is analogous to feedback loops. We need to understand what is needed and what works, then change what we do based on what we learn! It’s that simple.

It’s important to understand what we mean by the term “data,” because when people in the social sector hear this word they almost always think of evaluation, where a five-year study is needed to prove that something works. In these cases, people expect to pick up “evidence-based practice” from national research and apply what they see in their own backyard, ignoring that the context within which the research was conducted was likely completely different.

We look to turn this process on its head. Such evidence is useful, but it should be secondary to both an analysis of local data on what works and the assessment of that data by community expertise and voice. The diagram on the “Data Lens” below captures what we mean in very practical terms:

Feedback loops

Communities that are a part of the StriveTogether movement essentially use this Data Lens to find the “sweet spot, ” which combines local data and community expertise and voice with national research to inform decision-making.

But this is not enough. If we are going to sustain feedback loops or continuous improvement methodologies, we need incentives. The primary incentive, in the end, will be money. And in most communities, the way money is dispersed in the social sector must change. Very concretely, we recommend moving from the Request for Proposals (RFP) to the Request for Engagement (RFE).

In an RFP, the funder decides what the best practice is and the practitioners scurry to find ways to implement what has been decided for them. With an RFE, funders first identify the concrete outcome they want to move, such as kindergarten readiness or college graduation rates. But instead of prescribing what to do, they establish the expectation that programs and services must work together to establish a feedback loop to practice continuous improvement. In essence, they must look at local data to identify where there is the most pressing need and what is already working locally, determine if what they find aligns with the actual experience of the locals, and then develop a concrete plan for how to leverage all existing and new assets behind a shared plan to get better results.

In the end, being more disciplined about feedback loops and creating more incentives will focus the right people on the right work at the right time. And we can feel confident limited resources are going towards what matters most—no more ponds in the pouring rain!

This is the second in a series of essays on the power and potential of feedback loops to dramatically increase the social benefits of development assistance (read the first one here). It accompanies a call for projects related to feedback loops in an Ashoka Changemakers competition. This work is being catalyzed by Feedback Labs with support from the Rita Allen Foundation.

Jeff Edmondson is Managing Director of StriveTogether, a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks, based in Cincinnati, OH.