Want to improve social enterprise? Listen to those you serve. –Alex Marqusee

Social enterprises need to put customer satisfaction and beneficiary feedback at the center of everything they do.  Making what beneficiaries think the most important metric of success is both good management and the right thing to do.  My research for REDF this summer as a graduate student intern started with two basic truths.  First, the business community recognizes that focusing on what the customer thinks is the surest way to success.  Second, social enterprises as a business and as a social intervention should hold themselves to at least the same standard.

Only by empowering beneficiaries to hold us accountable can we make sure we learn and remember lessons about what works for transitional employees in social enterprises.  Most double bottom-line practices fall short on monitoring success towards social goals.  Revenue targets lend themselves to reliable, clear metrics, but tallying the number of trainings completed or wages earned doesn’t get close to counting how many lives have been improved.  We need to get out of the business of defining success for the people we serve, and let them define success for us.

Listening to what beneficiaries think works.  Research in health care shows that systems that focus on improving all parts of the patient experience have improved health outcomes.  Patient perception of care is increasingly seen as a vital goal by itself.  In K-12 schools, student perceptions of the quality of their education has been shown to accurately predict academic achievement.  Over the last decade, major international development agencies such as the World Bank and CARE have incorporated beneficiary centered methods throughout their monitoring and evaluation systems.

At their heart, effective systems for listening to what beneficiaries think stay true to these few key principles.  First, that data collection follows rigorous social science practices so that samples can be generalized.  Second, ethically, managers practice informed consent and ‘close the feedback loop’ by reporting results widely and publically.  Finally, beneficiaries remain central to the entire process whether by validating surveys, designing research questions or interpreting the results.

Good systems comprise a huge range of models from customer satisfaction surveys and structured focus groups to putting beneficiaries on the board of directors and having community groups perform social audits.  Global Giving’s story telling project has collected and analyzed over 50,000 stories from people across Uganda and Kenya to better understand the overall community impact from countless programs.  An empowered group of consumer advocates with Healthcare for the Homeless Houston, dramatically improved access to services by convincing the city council to fund a new bus route, called Project Access, to help the homeless get to service providers all over the city.

The rationale for asking transitional employees what’s working is simple: they know better than we do what their experience is like.  If someone is bored or frustrated with a financial literacy training, then maybe they are in the wrong class.  But when a beneficiary feedback system reports that over 80% of a cohort thinks the training is a waste of time, then you have a problem with your program. Paying attention systematically to what beneficiaries think about services and trainings improves how well social enterprise can funnel resources into impactful areas.  It improves our ability to hold partners accountable.  It means we can stay in touch with whether transitional employees are committed to their program to help reduce dropout rates.  In the end, it means we will get better at accomplishing our real goal – giving the people we serve the right tools and opportunities to meet their goals.

Alex Marqusee is pursuing an MPP at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley where he studies local government, economic development, and housing policy.  Prior to returning to school, Alex was a consultant for charter schools in the New York City area on operations and performance management while at Victory Education Partners.  Alex also worked at Wildcat Service Corporation where he provided research and operations support for social enterprise and workforce development programs. While living in Morocco after college, he worked for a microfinance association helping implement a social performance management system. Alex graduated from Tufts University with a BA in Quantitative Economics and Middle Eastern Studies. Alex was a Summer 2014 Farber Intern.

This is part of our Farber Blog Series.