This methodology has been central to Pace's approach for decades. To date, the organization has partnered with more than 40,000 girls — sharing power with them, elevating their voices and allowing them to collaborate on the decision-making process. By not just relying on purely experimental methods, like randomized controlled trials, nonprofits can build greater equity across their organizations.
The study drew on participatory measurements for evaluations such as surveys, interviews and focus group discussions with 15 nonprofits including: Accountability Lab (Mali), Boston Uncornered (MA), Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula (CA), Center for Employment Opportunities (NY), Doorways NWFL (FL) Gift of the Givers Foundation (South Africa), Harlem Children's Zone (NY), Lake County Build a Generation (CO), My Life My Choice (MA), Nurse-Family Partnership (CO), Our House (AR), Pace Center for Girls (FL), SOLE Colombia (Colombia), Think of Us (DC), Union Capital Boston (MA), and Youth Truth (CA) — a group co-curated with Fund for Shared Insight, Feedback Labs and Project Evident.
The research found that creating listening spaces nourishes trusting relationships, and not only gives an organization an opportunity to advocate for its constituents, but also to support constituents in advocating for themselves.
Overall, the study found that feedback reinforces equity in nonprofits' work and helps to understand and incorporate different perspectives from team members, community partners and families served.
This movement building momentum seeks to shift power from largely white evaluation staff to the participants themselves — and seeks to diversify talent pipelines for evaluators who conduct studies to reach a more accurate assessment.
Study coauthor, Lymari Benitez, Pace's director of evaluation, shared: "Through this study we aspire for more nonprofits, philanthropic and service organizations see the benefits of deeply engaging with those who they seek to serve through participatory research. There are multiple benefits to supporting this methodology, and the study shows that organizations who elected this approach experienced quick, smart shifts to problem solving and responding to trauma and injustice."
On average, study participants reported a 27% increase in inclusive decision-making across their organizations after shifting to participatory approaches.
These nonprofits also reported that a culture of consistent feedback allowed for agility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveyed organizations were able to swiftly adjust their services based on what they heard from the community on where the greatest needs are.
Union Capital Boston (UCB), for example, which helps build social capital among low-income residents by rewarding community involvement with Visa gift cards, learned several years ago — through biannual surveys — that members wanted to meet one another. With this information, UCB started hosting weekly Network Nights, where members gathered in a physical location to check in, lead discussions on topics that they nominated, and exchange favors and goods.
This established forum, informed by community feedback, became even more critical when the pandemic hit in 2020. "At the very start of the pandemic, we were able to raise $400,000 for COVID-19 relief and distribute it quickly via $150 gift cards, because we had the rewards model," says Jalina Suggs, director of networks at Union Capital Boston. "And we converted our Network Nights to virtual forums."
The study concludes that community focused approaches to feedback and evaluation must be applied across philanthropy by funders (public and private), evaluators, and nonprofits to strategically address trauma and injustice. When applied universally, organizations and funders can better provide solutions and diversify their staff to reflect the communities they serve.
About Pace Center for Girls Pace Center for Girls, based in Jacksonville, FL, envisions a world where all girls and young women have power, in a just and equitable society. Founded in 1985, Pace provides free year-round middle and high school academics, case management, counseling, and life skills development in a safe and supportive environment that recognizes and deals with past trauma and builds upon girls' individual strengths. Dedicated to meeting the social, emotional, and education needs of girls, Pace has a successful and proven program model that has changed the life trajectory of more than 40,000 girls and is recognized as one of the nation's leading advocates for girls in need.
About Milway Consulting Milway Consulting collaborates with and advises philanthropy and nonprofits with a focus on research, publishing and content strategies for funders, and innovation and growth strategies for content creators. Katie Smith Milway, principal of Milway Consulting and a senior advisor at The Bridgespan Group, has a background in journalism, nonprofit management, strategy consulting, and governance. Her work in sustainable development across four continents includes program design and measurement, donor development and communications, and organizational development.