First published at Charityscience.com in 2014
Many charities claim to accept and even enjoy feedback (both positive and critical), but I find that the reality is less straightforward. Most charities have two kinds of set-ups for feedback:
Giving feedback is technically possible, but it is not encouraged, is inconvenient, or has negative ramifications.
Giving feedback is easy.
There is a huge difference between these two, but people often think both of these make an organization open to feedback. Studies have shown that people are convenience maximizers, preferring to put in as little effort as possible. If something is a step harder, there is generally a huge drop off rate. For example, if you ask someone to give feedback, but make it inconvenient or subtly discourage it, the amount of real feedback you get will be a small fraction of what would have been given if it was made easy. If I wanted to make it seem like I was accepting feedback, but did not really want to receive or take into account large amounts of feedback (particularly negative feedback), I could do a number of things. I could discourage feedback by:
only accepting positive feedback;
trivializing the feedback and making it seem unimportant;
trying to censor negative public feedback.
I could make it inconvenient to give feedback by:
asking others to only send me feedback privately;
only accepting feedback from “chosen experts”, who I personally pick;
mainly putting my content on pages without the ability for others to comment;
only telling the public about projects after their completion;
responding to feedback very slowly so that the person giving feedback loses interest.
I could make it unpleasant to give feedback by:
having a strong negative reaction (e.g. sadness, anger, defensiveness) to negative feedback;
lashing out against those who give negative feedback (e.g. writing or saying negative things about what they are doing because of the feedback they have given);
holding grudges against individuals or organizations that give negative feedback.
If I see an organization doing these harmful things with regard to feedback, I get the sense that they do not really want to improve based on others' suggestions. Taking negative feedback in particular can be hard, but it’s an important skill to learn and it allows ideas to be improved much faster. We will never be able to solve the really important problems if we cannot admit that we are not doing everything perfectly.