In 2019 Accountable Now held a 100 Day Challenge for our members to work on strengthening their feedback and complaints mechanisms. Six member organisations took part, as did Accountable Now (check out our new Feedback and Complaints policy). Over the course of the challenge, we discussed the difference between feedback and formal complaints, different online and offline mechanisms, safeguarding, tracking and responding to feedback, promoting the use of our mechanisms, and publicly reporting on complaints received.
Based on these discussions, we have collected the 12 key steps to creating an effective online feedback and complaints mechanism – Accountable Now regards this as the basic mechanism all organisations should have in place, regardless of their size, context, or stakeholder groups. Whilst we recognise that offline mechanisms may be more appropriate and useful in some contexts, and strongly encourage CSOs to implement such mechanisms, we believe that having a mechanism on an organisation’s website is the simplest way to broadly share information and encourage the submission of feedback or complaints.
So what should you think about when creating (or revising) your mechanism? Here is a simple guide, with reference to some of our members’ mechanisms and policies. Many of the below steps should be addressed in an organisational feedback and complaints policy.
It is important – both for the organisation and its stakeholders – to be clear about the purpose of the mechanism. Many CSOs put their key stakeholders at the heart of their programming, strategy, and advocacy work, and have an increasing focus on participation and dialogue. Strong feedback mechanisms are crucial to listen to the needs of stakeholders, to learn what has worked well, and to identify what can be improved.
At the same time, these mechanisms are a way for CSOs to hold themselves to account. In the wake of a number of scandals to hit the sector in recent years, there is also increased external pressure to have appropriate mechanisms to submit complaints or report inappropriate behaviour or incidents.
2. Key concepts and approach to handling feedback and complaints
How does your organisation handle feedback? Consider objectives such as confidentiality, objectivity, timeliness, institutional learning, and a survivor-centered approach, and explain how your organisation aims to incorporate this into the feedback and complaints handling process. Include definitions of what you consider to be feedback, a complaint, sensitive complaint, and anything else that may be relevant to the process. Sightsavers’ and CBM’s complaints policies are two good examples to refer to.
3. Scope of the mechanism
It should be made clear what the scope of the mechanism is – which stakeholders it is intended for (internal/external), whether it covers the whole organisation or only particular offices, whether it includes the actions of partner organisations, etc. See Educo’s complaints and feedback policy for an example. Other organisational policies against which the CSO can be held to account, such as a code of conduct or safeguarding policy, should be referred to and linked. World Vision International’s EthicsPoint submission channel includes a “Standards and Policies” tab with links to their Code of Conduct, Core Values, and Whistleblower Policy.It should also be made clear what is not within the scope of feedback and complaints mechanisms, such as objections to an organisation’s advocacy work because it does not align with the complainant’s personal beliefs. The latter point is addressed in Amnesty International’s feedback policy.
4. Process and timeline
Most important in facilitating the submission of feedback and complaints is a description of the process and timeline. This should include information on how to submit feedback and complaints, what steps the organisation will take to follow up, when a response can be expected, and what options there are for escalating complaints. Sightsavers’ complaints policy is a good example here.
5. Who deals with feedback and complaints?
It should be made clear who in the organisation will be receiving feedback and investigating complaints at various stages of the process. If information about complaints might be shared with multiple people or teams, this should be stated. There should be also alternate points of contact in case the person receiving feedback and complaints is the subject of a complaint. For example, if an organisation’s Programme Manager is the one monitoring the complaints email address, the organisation may state that any complaints against the Programme Manager should be submitted to the Executive Director. See an example in Sections 6 and 7 of Accountable Now’s Feedback and Complaints policy.
6. Dedicated and accessible submission channel(s)
In order to ensure feedback and complaints are received and dealt with in a timely manner and by the appropriate person in the organisation, there should be a dedicated email address and/or submission form on the website. This should be visible and easy to locate, and links may need to be included in several sections of the website.
Best practice is to have a separate feedback/complaints page on the website, and include links to this page via a button on the homepage as well as on the “contact us” page. The feedback and complaints policy, including information about the submission and follow-up process, should be included next to the submission form and/or email.
A good example is CIVICUS’ website, which has a link to their feedback form in the footer of their website (on every page), as well as a prominent banner at the top of their accountability webpage inviting feedback. Both this banner and the feedback form itself include links to CIVICUS’ feedback policy.
7. Allow anonymity and protect confidentiality
This is particularly important when it comes to complaints, as some complainants may not feel comfortable identifying themselves for a number of reasons. They may fear negative backlash for complaining, or not wish for their colleagues to hear about their complaint, especially if it is of a sensitive nature.
In order to protect the complainant, all complaints should be treated confidentially, with the complaint and relevant information only seen by those who are authorised to do so. If the information does need to be shared more broadly, e.g. with senior management, any identifying details about the complainant should be removed as far as possible, unless the complainant has indicated that they wish to be identified.
Organisations should also be willing to receive anonymous complaints, where the complainant has not identified themselves. This can be done either by the complainant setting up a fake email address and not providing their name, or by the organisation providing an online submission form which does not require a name and/or email to be provided. For example, CARE’s EthicsPoint complaints site and Educo’s feedback form allow anonymous complaints.
Whilst it can be more difficult to conduct an investigation into the specific complaint if it is submitted anonymously, it is still important to collect and respond to such complaints as far as possible. Even if it is not possible to verify or resolve the particular issue, the information submitted is still useful in identifying potential problems within the organisation, and multiple complaints about the same issue/person can indicate a trend.
8. Categorise submissions for more streamlined follow-up
Different categories of feedback will warrant different responses, including who is involved and how quickly a response is required (if at all). For example, positive feedback or suggestions about an organisation’s work should be treated differently to a complaint. Complaints about gross misconduct will require a different – and more urgent – response than less serious complaints. In larger organisations with multiple offices, if feedback is collected centrally, it will also be important to know which office the feedback relates to.
The easiest way to collect the necessary information to ensure different kinds or feedback are dealt with appropriately is to have an online submission form where the submitter can choose their type of complaint and any other relevant information from drop-down lists. Based on the submitter’s selection, the form can send the submissions directly to the appropriate person(s) in the organisation. For an example, see CIVICUS’ feedback page, where submitters can determine the type and area of the feedback.
9. Tailor to your key stakeholders
An organisation’s key stakeholders should be able to easily access and use their online feedback and complaints mechanisms. Policies and mechanisms should use simple language and avoid jargon, translation into languages other than English should be considered, and for organisations working with children, it is best practice to include simpler child-friendly mechanisms. See for example SOS Children’s Villages International’s feedback and complaints site, which has different submission channels for adults and children. The EthicsPoint platform used by World Vision International and CARE International offers telephone interpretation services in over 150 languages.
10. Actively promote your mechanisms
In order for feedback and complaints mechanisms to be useful, people need to be aware of them and feel comfortable using them. It is the organisation’s responsibility to communicate that feedback (including complaints) are welcomed by regularly promoting feedback mechanisms and encouraging their use, both internally and externally. In addition to making the mechanisms visible on the website, it is a good idea to include information periodically in newsletters, to refer to mechanisms at events and meetings with stakeholders, and to ensure staff are familiar with and can share the mechanisms.
11. Respond and follow up
Whilst positive feedback and general suggestions may not require a direct response, it is crucial that complaints are responded to in a timely manner. Receipt of the complaint should be acknowledged and complainants should be informed of next steps, including when they can expect to receive a response. If the process is delayed for any reason, the complainant should be informed and an updated timeline should be shared. Most importantly, once the issue has been looked into, the outcome and any steps the organisation will be taking should be shared with the complainant. These steps are all crucial for maintaining people’s trust in the mechanism – if their complaints are ignored or handled poorly, they are unlikely to use the mechanism in the future.
12. Share learnings – publish key takeaways from feedback received and what you are doing about it
Finally, it is good practice for organisations to share key information about the feedback (particularly complaints) they have received as well as key learnings and responses. An increasing number of CSOs have been publishing data about the number of complaints received, what issues/topics they related to, where the incidents occurred, how many were resolved, and key actions taken to resolve the issues. In most cases this data is shared in our members’ annual accountability reports, but in some cases it is published directly on their website.
The best example of this is currently Oxfam International, whose webpage for their 10-Point Action Plan to strengthen safeguarding and to transform organisational culture includes the number of safeguarding cases reported, the number closed or carried into the next year, what broad issues the cases related to, a breakdown of complainants/survivors and subjects/perpetrators (staff, beneficiaries, community members, etc.), and the action taken to respond to the cases (disciplinary action, dismissals, etc.). . The page also has reflections on lessons learned and explains that Oxfam are using this as an opportunity to learn and share with peers.
For more information about good practices around incident reporting, see our article on ‘Reporting Safeguarding Incidents: Good Practices’.
We are proud of the progress our members (and we ourselves!) have made on the above steps over the past year. Feedback and complaints mechanisms will remain high on our agenda as we keep exploring ways to improve, together with our members.
If you would like to share your experiences or suggestions on this topic, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org – we would love to hear what you think!
 Feedback is any type of input about an organisation’s work, positive or negative, and could include suggestions for improvement. Complaints are a subset of feedback, expressing dissatisfaction about an organisation’s (and/or its staff members’) work or actions.
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