Take a Fresh Look at Feedback - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Take a Fresh Look at Feedback

As you engage in your philanthropy—working with grantees, applicants, board members, and, in many foundations, staff—you’re giving and receiving feedback all the time about things that concern you and things you love, whether you mean to or not. Feedback comes through via unconscious facial expressions, comments during meetings, or your enthusiasm for the work.

As a longtime student of giving and receiving feedback, I’m far from perfect at it. But I have found that bringing intentionality to my communication has been helpful. I encourage you to do the same.

Giving Feedback

Our staff at Exponent Philanthropy were trained by The Management Center in the SAW model of giving feedback:

  • S: Share your experience (what you loved or what concerned you) and how it affected you; mention why you think it matters.
  • A: Ask if you got it right and acknowledge that you may have made assumptions. Although your experience is always valid, your assumptions, understanding, and perception can be wrong.
  • W: Wrap up with next steps and state what you expect or will do next. It’s fair game to make a request of the other person, but it’s best not to go into the conversation with an expectation of what the outcome will be. Allow the other person to participate in finding a solution.

I’ve found it helpful to prepare in advance what I want to say using the SAW steps, keeping the following characteristics in mind. Download a worksheet to help you prepare >>

Some Characteristics of Good Feedback

  • Be specific. Talk about a single behavior or pattern of behaviors, not a person’s general character. Feedback should never be a smokescreen for making sweeping judgments. I think it’s best if you talk about one example or one pattern per conversation. Even if you have multiple topics to cover, it can be hard for the listener to take it all in. Give the recipient time and space to incorporate one thing at a time, especially if your goal is to improve a situation.
  • Be accountable; speak from your experience. Don’t pass along messages for others, or say that “Many people think…” or “I’m not alone in… .” Individuals should be responsible for providing, or holding back, their own feedback.
  • Don’t speak from emotion. Emotions are an important part of our individual landscapes, but, when concerns arise, the situation can only be helped by waiting until you feel more objective. Anger can often feel like a moment of clarity, but allow anger to subside just as you would any other emotion.
  • Offer it in a timely manner. Although you do want to wait until emotion has subsided, don’t wait too long. You don’t want to forget—or allow the other person to forget—the details of the situation. No one is well served by dredging up things that happened months or years earlier.
  • Get permission first. Don’t startle someone with feedback that you think is important. Instead, ask them if you may speak to them about your experience or something you observed. Don’t assume that your intended recipient is in a moment of being able to hear what you have to say just because you are in a moment of feeling eager to speak.
  • Keep it positive. Consider the possibility that all feedback can be shared as positive, whether you are offering praise or constructive suggestions. It may be a little unorthodox, but consider what it looks and feels like if feedback is given with the intention of supporting the other person in their own evolution, not telling them what you don’t like or how you think they should do something. In the end, it’s up to the other person to decide how to respond to your feedback. Why not give your feedback a chance by finding a way to make it positive?

Receiving Feedback

Receiving feedback well also is important. If you don’t seem open to feedback, you can come across to others as unconcerned at best, unpleasant at worst.

But soliciting useful and honest feedback can be a tricky endeavor in professional settings. Whereas feedback happens naturally in personal relationships, according to your family or social culture, norms feel more rigid on foundation boards and in the workplace, and it can be harder to read others’ cues. Be explicit about asking for feedback so that others know you are genuinely open to it.

Keep It Coming—and Going!

There are a few ways to get high-quality and helpful feedback, including, first and foremost, modeling good feedback yourself.

Make it your practice to intentionally give and consciously receive feedback often. It oughtn’t wait for a loaded conversation or after you’ve been stewing on something. Stay attuned to your capacity to engage in thoughtful feedback.

What do you think? What’s been your experience? Did I miss anything?

Ruth MastersonSenior Program Director Ruth Masterson works closely with members to create written materials and training curricula, and answers member questions on foundation administration, governance, boards, and tax and legal topics. Prior to joining Exponent Philanthropy, Ruth served nonprofits in her work at Adler & Colvin, the Council on Foundations, Build Community Arts Center, and San Francisco BayKeeper.

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