When portraying people who have benefitted from the work of our organizations, it’s important that they have a meaningful voice in their portrayal.

Collecting their feedback is one of the only ways we can be sure to treat others the way they want to be treated. But we don’t know how they want to be treated if they don’t tell us. And they won’t tell us if they are afraid of offending us.

If you come to my house for dinner and eat my food, when I ask how you liked it, you’re not going to tell me it was bad. You’ll want to be polite and not offend me, so you’ll say something nice or vague regardless of the truth. And that’s if we’re friends. That’s without power dynamics. When there is a power dynamic, like your boss asking you for feedback, or a key foundation asking your organization for feedback, you are more likely to tell them something they want to hear to preserve the relationship. Now, think of the power dynamics between a nonprofit and the people that organization helps. Your program participants feel like they have duty to please you and will tell you want you want to hear because you have the power to help them or not.

Before you go asking directly for feedback, consider these five tips to getting more authentic responses in your feedback collection process:

1. Don’t just ask people your organization helps directly – ask people with similar identities and experiences

You want to hear from people your organization has helped, but also people you haven’t helped. These people will also be of that community, or embody some of the identities and lived experiences of the people who help, but they will not have directly benefited from your organization. You’ll want to get feedback from this group to validate what was collected from your beneficiaries. If all your beneficiaries tell you that your fundraising ads are wonderfully accurate, but others from their community find them flagrant and offensive, then you have some opinions to reconcile. Chances are your beneficiaries are telling you what you want to hear, instead of sharing their honest concerns.

2. Ask a diverse group

Even if your organization serves a particular demographic, look for diversity within that demographic. Age, gender, race/ethnicity, life experiences. Diversity within the group will ensure that when themes emerge in terms of perspective and opinions they are probably reflective of that group and worth considering.

3. Instead of  asking for an opinion on something you have already created, ask open ended and aspirational questions

“What would you like to see?” This provides an opportunity for beneficiaries to have a meaningful voice in how they are portrayed. They may provide ideas that never occurred to anyone in the organization.

If these open-ended questions don’t yield anything concrete, you can include multiple choice questions like  “Which do you prefer?” Multiple choice questions also help identify the least popular images and stories, which you can then use as props to gather more critical feedback through questions like, “Why didn’t you pick this image?”

4. Examine who gathers the feedback

In some cultures, people are more honest with total strangers because they don’t have a relationship with them and don’t care what the strangers will think of them. In other cultures, people are more authentic with those they know very well, who often share their identities.

Think carefully about the person who should be soliciting feedback from the community your organization is helping. Will they be more honest with a stranger, or a friend? Should you send someone from headquarters to conduct interviews, or find a local community leader?

5. Examine how the feedback is gathered

Will you distribute anonymous surveys? Conduct confidential interviews? Facilitate focus groups? Will the collection involve the internet? Will feedback be verbal or written? Each group/community/culture will have different needs and preferences. Talk to your allies within those groups to determine which methods will be most successful.

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