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Doing Good Work is No Longer Enough

By Nell Edgington

There is an increasing drumbeat in the world of social change that nonprofits must start measuring their work. Thought leaders like Mario Morino with Leap of Reason, Bill Shore’s recent blog post “What Does Success Look Like?” and David Henderson’s (recently interviewed on the Social Velocity blog here) ongoing Full Contact Philanthropy blog, to name a few, are adding to the chorus.

The argument among thought leaders, funders, raters and others in the social change sector is increasingly that nonprofits MUST:

  1. Figure out what they exist to do (a theory of change)
  2. Create a disciplined operational model for creating that change
  3. Measure whether the change is actually happening
  4. Articulate that change in order to garner more support

But all of this is fairly new to the nonprofit sector and not yet widely practiced (by a long shot). In fact, some of these ideas are still quite controversial. Let’s take #2 for example, “Creating a disciplined operational model.” David Henderson analyzes this well in his post last week. Although David gets a little bogged down in jargon, his idea is a really great, but probably touchy, one.

He argues that nonprofits must become more discerning and disciplined about who they provide service to. Because nonprofits have limited resources, they cannot serve everyone. Therefore instead of serving people on a first come first served basis (which is the norm), they should instead serve those who they can best help. In other words, they should determine and then serve those populations of people who will benefit the most from their intervention:

In the case of the youth workforce development program, while all low-income youth would qualify for services, we might have a preference for placing people into the program who are likely to complete the internship. In this case, one could use historical data to fit a predictive model that provides some insight into what characteristics made an individual more or less likely to have completed the program in the past. Under this framework, social welfare maximization would involve not only placing people into the program, but maximizing the number of people in the program who complete the internship.

The idea is that instead of filling up the program with any youth who have a need, the nonprofit would create more social change by thoughtfully selecting types of children on whom they could have the most impact.

To the nonprofit world, which is very much focused on trying to help as many people as possible, this is a potentially radical idea. But if smartly employed, nonprofits could actually provide more social change through this disciplined method. And in an increasingly resource-constrained environment, it makes sense for nonprofits to want to get the highest return on their program resources.

In order to take this approach, however, nonprofits must have a theory of change. You cannot create social change if you don’t:

  • Know what you want that change to be, and
  • Measure whether that change is happening

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, it is getting harder and harder for nonprofits to attract support. The harsh reality is that those nonprofits that develop a smart theory of change, measure whether that change is happening, and then articulate the change to supporters will increasingly be the ones that survive. Not to mention that they will be the ones that actually create social change.

Photo Credit: Colin Smith

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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6 Comments to Doing Good Work is No Longer Enough

Frank Martinelli
July 31, 2012

Thanks very much for your post. A very important message for the sector. In some ways, much of this is not really new. What is new is that it is finally beginning to take hold. Momentum continues to build. More organizations are beginning to fundamentally change the way they approach their work.

A few thoughts: in my view, it’s a problem that too much of the theory of change work done by nonprofits – even the most stunning examples – is done in isolation from other organizations. “We’re creating a theory of change for our organization.” It is a sign of progress that leaders are investing time and energy in the crafting of a coherent theory of change for their organization but in the absence of an over arching theory of change, we run some risk mistaking lots of activity for purposeful action that leads to real social change. An example: all of the organizations serving young children with disabilities in a county or region would join together to craft an over arching theory of change to inform their efforts together. There are some great examples of collaborative strategic program planning that involves networks of organizations. We need many many more. Encouragement and support for such efforts continues to the a critical role for funders and major donors.

And that brings up another concern: sometimes it seems like the words “social change” are applied to just about any effort – with or without a theory of change – that purports to be making a difference/”changing the world”. How much of the work of nonprofits is not really about real social change but applying Band-Aids to a seriously dysfunctional social and economic system. There’s no question that efforts need to be made to take the pain away for so many people, if only for a while. But we need more organizations that are working at the level of root causes – promoting and advancing real social changes that alter the fundamental relations power that exist in our society and our world.

Thanks for your efforts and your writing. Yours is an important voice.

Frank Martinelli

Tina Crouse
July 31, 2012

Agree with you wholeheartedly Nell and once again, you’ve given a great blog on the ‘new’ ideas and issues facing the nonprofit world. Now working in Change Management, I would add one more point for a nonprofit to create social change – commitment to completion. The number of times I have worked on projects only for the org or the funders to pull the plug at the moment of change is astounding and incredibly dissatisfying. I’ve been working out several strategies so as to increase the completion rate. Once more change theory goes into practice, I think we’ll see fast and effective social change happen in the nonprofit sector.

Nell Edgington
July 31, 2012

Frank, I completely agree with you, collaborative strategic planning and theory of change work across organizations would be phenomenal. And I also agree that more solutions focused on changing root causes and broken systems is absolutely critical.

I appreciate the kind words and am glad to have you contributing to the conversation as well!

Nell Edgington
July 31, 2012

Tina, yours is a great point. It’s not enough to have a theory of change, you have to actually execute on that theory and bring it to fruition.

[…] Doing Good Work is No Longer Enough is an interesting article from the Social Velocity blog addressing the need for nonprofits to embrace a theory of change, execute on that change, measure the effectiveness of their work, and articulate the change to supporters. Share this:FacebookEmailPrintTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Have you registered? […]

Richard Marker
August 22, 2012

Mr. Martinelli is quite correct: this hss become pretty much standard — in some ways even faddish – for several years. But it is useful to emphasize the new reality – that any public benefit/ngo/non profit these days is being judged not on what it does but what it accomplishes. And that is useful indeed.

However, it does underscore that the sector does not and cannot work in a vacuum. It may be true that a particular social service agency can only serve a limited population well. But that doesn’t mean that other populations shouldn’t be served. The challenge, of course, is that non-profits will choose the populations which they can demonstrate give the best results. Good evidence based change. But what about the outlie-ers, the ones who will never be able to be served efficiently?
There are 2 responses: One is that there be a collaborative agreement between funders and the service delivering sector to recognize these difficult needs and to hold these other target populations to a different standard so they can be served and funded. Or, that there be coherent advocacy to make sure that public policy and support is available to pick up where the well run but focused non profits cannot or won’t tread.

After all, social needs are not the same as a clothing boutique. If a boutique closes, a new one is down the street or will open up soon. If a social service agency decides that its effectiveness means abandoning a particular population, there is no guarantee that another will fill the gap without a serious overarching societal commitment.

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