Tech is helping social service organizations gather better community feedback — here’s why that matters

The transition to digital social service delivery provides a key opportunity for organizations to make their work better, more informed, and more relevant

Why It Matters

Organizations that fail to respond to feedback from the communities they serve will fail to adapt. In the midst of COVID-19, many organizations are using technology to reach their communities and gather feedback, in order to respond and keep pace with the support they need.

Photo: Kudoz

This story is in partnership with IBM Canada.

Gathering and responding to feedback is a mainstay goal for truly community-centric organizations. But for many, the gap between that goal and action remains. 

A Stanford Social Innovation Review survey of 1,986 non-profit, foundation, and other charitable sector leaders found that “88 percent of the leaders prioritize gathering client feedback,” but only “13 percent of social sector leaders believe they have been able to turn their feedback [into] a reality.”

How can the social impact sector consistently gather and take action on community feedback? The answer may have, for better or for worse, come amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Among social impact professionals, ‘digital transformation’ has been a hot-button phrase for years, but many lag behind, particularly government and the social sector. Until COVID-19 finally demanded the leap. 

While many organizations have been separated physically from their communities, some have innovated and adopted technology to bridge the service gap. Some organizations are already finding that going digital is now driving more community interaction than before. 

Tech-enabled community feedback has been key even for organizations that previously ran most or all of their operations in-person. Kudoz, a Vancouver-based experience platform, connects people with and without disabilities to activities they can do together. For example, hosts on the platform can create one-hour virtual experiences, anything from how to make a podcast to learning a new language. Youth and adults with disabilities can search the platform and book experiences to try for free. 

Many of these experiences were in-person. But starting in March, Kudoz moved quickly to adapt. According to Allison Chow, mobilization curator and Elizabeth Boyd, designer at Kudoz, the team shifted some user testing to digital. Collaboratively working on plans in JamBoards and Google Slides, they focused on understanding what their participants cared about. For example, they measured the different kinds of activities participants spent time on. From their learnings, they developed three prototypes, and eventually a final digital product emerged.

For Kudoz, going digital has enabled unique opportunities. They are able to access a different and broader audience of users than they were before, expanding their community. 

The team at Kudoz is convinced that the “fabric of what we do has fundamentally changed.” Certainly, they will likely return to some in-person activities — and many organizations will — but overall the feedback is that this model enables Kudoz to be more creative in what types of experiences they create. What’s more, they are committed to not letting access be a barrier. They heard from some participants that accessing the technology was a problem — so they solved the problem with some tech coaching and a few loaner devices to enable those people to get online. 

While implementing tech-enabled community feedback might be natural for startup organizations, are older institutions equipped to do the same? Pamela Hillier, executive director of Community Connection (211 Central East Ontario), says yes. 

Based out of Collingwood and leading the organization for nearly 35 years, Hillier says the organization has most recently shifted to focus on enabling access to health care services. As a technology-enabled call centre, 211 works with partner organizations to connect people with the services they need. Part of this process involves referrals, including from 911. For example, a senior who is alone or someone with mental illness may need a connection to social services. 

Another aspect of the organization’s work is being responsive — implementing feedback from communities the organization serves — including by tracking how their community is doing, proactively. A new outbound call process aims to periodically reach out to residents to check on them and, for example, ensure they are receiving the income and tax credits that they might qualify for. Down the line, this could help ensure they are living healthier lives. Moreover, it provides a regular tool to help track and improve factors in their life that impact their health. 

Community Connection has heard from its community that access to broadband and tech access remain as issues, particularly during COVID-19; so, they are seeking to help solve this gap by providing better access to technology, including providing increased internet connectivity and devices to residents.

The organization has also heard that there are a number of communication gaps between different services and agencies — for example not having a consistent record of a resident’s interactions with the system. So, Community Connection is investing in technical capabilities and communication through a digital platform — a CRM — that will allow them to have a single record for multiple engagements with a resident, follow-ups on partner connections, a health record, and patient portal. 

Ultimately, the focus on community feedback may be tied to the increased valuation of lived experience by accelerators and investors. “We invest in issues across the social sector, from global health to education. We prioritize investing in entrepreneurs with lived experience, because they have a heightened level of commitment to the problem they’re addressing,” says Nicole Dunn of Fast Forward, a tech non-profit accelerator. “We want to focus on those who use tech, because it enables non-profit impact at scale.”