Designing Real Feedback Loops: A Road Map for Success

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

- Herbert Simon






What’s a feedback loop?

An organization uses feedback loops to understand and improve service implementation. Data (feedback) is collected from a variety of sources - including those receiving services - for the dual purpose of i) learning more about particular aspects of service implementation and ii) redesigning these aspects in response to findings. Ideally, this is an ongoing process, with the organization continually learning about its program and using data/feedback to design a stronger one.   


What do you mean design a “real” feedback loop?

These days, a substantial percentage of nonprofits periodically collect some program data from constituents. Many of these organizations also make regular changes to their programs – ranging from small improvements to entire overhauls.


Program data tends to inform program changes in the following way:  

“But that’s not a feedback loop!”, you’re exclaiming. 




In my years in the field I’ve found that nonprofits - pressed for time and lacking internal capacity - tend to gather feedback in an ad hoc way, with data collection and reporting systems not tied closely to decision making processes. When relevant data is gathered and consulted, too often it’s to inform changes already in process. When feedback data is integrated into decision-making, it’s often around small pilot programs tangential to the main work of the organization (aka the funder made us do it).


From conversations with nonprofit leadership, staff and stakeholders, it’s clear a small but growing percentage of organizations wish to do more than hurriedly write a client satisfaction survey and send it out into the world, while simultaneously making program changes uninformed by data.


These organizations want to create actual, substantive feedback loops that will enable evidence based decision-making and continuous learning; diminish guesswork about who constituents are and how best to meet their needs; and more deliberately bring service recipients and other stakeholders into the process of understanding and improving services.


These organizations – and if you’re still reading you’re probably one of them - want something that looks like this:




To facilitate the process of creating real feedback loops, I’ve developed a resource - a road map - focused on helping nonprofits understand:

-  What functions their current data collection activities serve and what they help them achieve;

- What function(s) they’d like a true feedback loop to perform and what they want to achieve through it;

- What they need to do to get from the status quo to a new and improved state.



How to use the the road map:

* Organize a “feedback group” – preferably one with leadership, program staff and constituent representation - that will meet regularly during planning and implementation. Creating a feedback loop takes time, buy in and resources. The project will be much more successful if a team representative of your organization and its work is sharing ideas and workload.

* Focus on your organization’s primary data collection – what ties to its main work – and how you will build a true feedback loop to inform program decision making. It’s tempting to focus feedback loop creation on low hanging fruit – the small project that you can get off the ground quickly. But if what you collect isn’t central to your organization’s work, no one will look at it. The data you collect will not be used to drive decision making.

* Spend time looking at what you’re doing now – don’t just leap to what will be. Really understanding how and why existing data collection processes function the way they do – what’s collected; integration of data into decision-making and problem-solving; quality of implementation - will help you build stronger feedback loops.

* Answer questions one by one, gathering and presenting information to the group as you go along. Be empirical. Examine protocols, training and methods; look at where and how data is stored and analyzed; what kind of reports are produced and shared; conduct a data walk.

* Keep referring to the document. As with all maps, it’s meant to be used repeatedly - reminding you where you’re at and where you need to go to arrive successfully at your destination.

* While the list of questions is extensive, the answers should not be. The work is in the needs assessment and action planning, not the write up.

* Focus, focus, focus. As much as possible, narrow down what you want to gather feedback on. This will make it easier to develop protocols and training as well as determine resource requirements. Most importantly, clear scope will help you collect data that can be used to solve problems and build a stronger program.

* Create a feedback loop that you can pilot and adjust. Strong feedback loops are the result of careful design. You’ll get better results if you test at least once and tweak in response.

Got questions about how to use this? Not sure if and how this applies to your organization? Have some feedback of your own to share?

I'd love to hear from you: