During the past 15 years, I’ve spent a lot of time (some might say an unusual amount, even) thinking about the importance of gathering and responding to feedback from the people social sector programs are designed to help.

I initially got the “feedback bug” in 2008 when I served as founding director of YouthTruth, a student survey program at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. With YouthTruth, I saw the power that young people’s feedback could have to improve school operations, teaching, and culture in ways that truly serve them.

Since that experience, I’ve made systematic listening an underlying principle and methodological underpinning of my work. In my current work at Ekouté, we seek to help organizations ground their decision-making processes — from strategy to measurement — in high-quality and authentic input from the people their programs are designed to serve. A core Ekouté project is leading Listen4Good, a national capacity-building effort of the Fund for Shared Insight that helps nonprofits build high-quality client feedback loops.

Through these experiences, my colleagues and I have been able to help service providers of all stripes create and sustain dedicated practices for listening. Gradually, we’ve seen behavior start to shift in the nonprofit sector. But there’s one part of the broader social sector that’s consistently proven a tougher nut to crack: foundations.

Research and media activity continue to suggest that listening is an important stated priority for foundations, but, in practice, change has been slow going. Consider CEP’s report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective. The report found that 69 percent of foundation CEOs describe listening to end clients as having significant potential for impact, yet more than half of funders interviewed for the study also “expressed concerns that real, on-the-ground listening is either limited or nonexistent.”

Given this context, I was excited when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation commissioned Ekouté to conduct a landscape scan of foundation listening practices. Through research and interviews with 20 different foundations, our goal was to examine to what extent and in what ways foundations are really listening and making different decisions based on the perspectives of those they seek to help.

Our scan looked at listening practices from a few vantage points, including how listening efforts differ depending on a foundation’s approach to strategy as well as where the foundation is in its life cycle (e.g. strategy origination, implementation, refresh, or exit).

What we saw were a few foundations boldly experimenting with listening, championed internally by a small number of individuals, but a field still in many ways comfortable in its old ways, steeped in exclusivity and privilege. As one program officer from an international foundation included in the scan described, “The failing here is for our team to actually walk the walk, rather than just say we have these principles. There’s a big gap between what we say and what we do.”

Indeed, foundation ambitions, intent, and rhetoric when it comes to listening continue to eclipse actual practice on the ground.   This is especially true at larger national and international foundations that tend to be focused on systems-level interventions. At these foundations, listening can be more complicated, but it is just as critical — especially given the large volume of resources at play.

Seeing this gap could easily make one cynical about the prospects for effective listening. But we saw reason for optimism in our research as well.

Read the full article about listening by Valerie Threlfall at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.