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evaluation

How Effective Is Your Nonprofit Leader?

In an ideal world, one of the things a nonprofit board of directors does is annually evaluate the performance of the executive director. But let’s be honest, how often does that actually happen?

I once had an executive director so desperate for feedback about her job performance from a board who refused to evaluate her that she hired me to interview board and staff and write her performance review.

Perhaps boards are uncomfortable with reviewing the CEO, or they don’t know how to manage it, or they are simply unaware that it’s their responsibility. Whatever the reasons, effective evaluation of nonprofit CEO performance doesn’t happen enough in the sector.

But for a nonprofit to be effective and sustainable there must be a system in place for regularly evaluating it’s chief staff member (not to mention the rest of the staff and the board of directors itself, but those are for another day).

As I’ve said before, the head staff member (CEO or executive director) is the most important position in a nonprofit organization. She affects the level of engagement of  the board, the financial sustainability of the organization, the productivity of the staff, and ultimately the organization’s ability to achieve it’s mission. She is the chief spokesperson, chief fundraiser, chief cheerleader and so much more. At the very least, she deserves to know, on an annual basis, how well her board and staff think she is doing.

The CEO evaluation is an opportunity for the board to discuss the performance of their lead staff person, whether the organization is going in the right direction, and what, if any, adjustments need to be made. The discussion can offer a real point of organizational self-reflection that can re-energize and re-orient all involved.

So in order to inspire your nonprofit to create an annual system for evaluating the performance of your CEO or executive director, I’d like to offer some suggested questions to guide your board’s process. Ideally the board’s Governance or Board Affairs committee would be charged with managing the CEO evaluation each year. These are the types of questions they would want to answer (by surveying, compiling and analyzing staff and board feedback):

  1. What does the CEO do really well? What are his/her strengths as the leader of our nonprofit?
  2. Where is there room for improvement? What are his/her weaknesses as a leader of our nonprofit?
  3. How well does she/he recruit, manage and develop the board?
  4. How well does she/he recruit, manage, and develop the staff?
  5. How well does she/he guide the overall strategy of our nonprofit?
  6. How well does she/he serve as a spokesperson and external relationship builder for our nonprofit?
  7. How well does she/he ensure the financial sustainability of our organization?

It is critical to mention that the data gathered in the review process should be kept anonymous. You want board and staff to feel free to be honest in their responses and not fear reprisal or embarrassment for their candor. And when the board delivers the final evaluation to the CEO, they should do it in a way in which the CEO feels appreciated for the things she does well and supported in addressing any areas of concern. Ideally both board and CEO come away from the process feeling that the CEO has a clear path for the coming year and the tools and support she needs to get there.

If you need help getting your board moving forward on this process, or help coaching your leader to become more effective, check out the Leadership Coaching services I provide.

Photo Credit: Packer, poster artist, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

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Can Philanthropy Lead In These Challenging Times?

Last week I was in Boston for the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference. It was an amazing gathering of leaders talking about how philanthropy should respond in these difficult times. If you couldn’t make the conference and want a run down of the three days, CEP’s Ethan McCoy recapped Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 on the CEP blog. And you can also see the #CEP2017 Twitter feed.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, so I wanted to share a few of my takeaways.

The conference was bookended by two incredible speakers. I was blown away by the first night’s keynote address by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works to end mass incarceration and challenge racial and economic injustice.

He gave a completely mesmerizing speech about the historic roots of racial inequity and injustice and how we can move forward from America’s past and present toward a more just and equitable society. He argued that there are four things we must do:

  1. “Get proximate” to communities we want to help
  2. Work to understand and change the long-standing American narrative of racial difference
  3. Stay hopeful, and
  4. Accept that the work will be uncomfortable

It is impossible to do justice to his amazing speech, so I offer his Ted Talk from 2012 to show you what a thought-provoking speaker he is. I also plan to read his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, about how to fix our broken criminal justice system.

The final keynote speaker of the conference, Harvard historian Nancy Koehn, gave a riveting talk about looking at historic leaders, like Ernest Shackleton — an explorer who led expeditions to the Antarctic — to draw lessons about leadership in our current times.

She argued that “leaders are not born, they are made.” Every single one of us could step up and become a leader. And what defines a real leader is that “effective leaders help us overcome the limitation of our own selfishness, weakness, laziness, fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

In between those two amazing speakers were breakouts and plenaries that encouraged philanthropy to step up to the plate. There were urgings for foundation leaders to embrace advocacy, support nonprofit sustainability, explore state-by-state (instead of national) strategies for social change, listen to beneficiaries, understand their own networks, and fund evaluation, among other things. There certainly was an underlying theme that philanthropists should do more and be more in this new political era.

And these are incredibly challenging times, to be sure. Professor of Economics at Stanford, Raj Chetty, painted a very dire picture of income inequality in the U.S. Things have only gotten worse in the past several decades. In fact, as the slide below demonstrates, “the American Dream” is actually now more attainable in the U.K., Denmark and Canada than it is in the United States.

The final plenary session of the conference really pushed philanthropists to think hard about whether they are helping or hurting the causes they support. Jim Canales, President of the Barr Foundation, led a conversation among Sacha Pfeiffer (reporter from the Boston Globe), Vu Le (author of the Nonprofits With Balls blog), Grant Oliphant (president of the Heinz Endowments), and Linsey McGoey (senior lecturer at the University of Essex) critiquing philanthropy’s influence.

In particular, I really appreciated Linsey McGoey’s determination to push philanthropy farther, arguing that philanthropists working on issues of inequity need to address the much larger systems at work: “If foundations care about inequality, they should focus on the tax code and reduced government spending that worsens inequality.”

The CEP conference was an opportunity for philanthropy to take a hard look at itself and, I hope, find the determination to step up as the leaders we so desperately need now.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Nov 2016

reading in darkI don’t have to tell you that November was rough.

A shocking end to an intensely divisive presidential campaign has left many in the social change world reeling. From trying to understand the underlying issues that are dividing our country, to figuring out how to move forward from here and what the future may hold, November was full of soul-searching, blame and calls to action. And growing activism and protest added to the feeling of unrest. But beyond the election there were some bright spots —  a new experiment in growing individual giving, a new way to evaluate nonprofits, and new technology to watch in 2017.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in November. But I know it was an incredibly busy month, so please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. With a presidential election outcome that almost no one predicted, there was plenty of conversation about what everyone missed. From deep rural disaffection, to the “class culture gap,” to political correctness on college campuses, there was no shortage of analysis about what might be causing such deep political divides in our country. As always, Pew Research added critical data to the conversation by breaking down America’s political divisions into 5 charts.

  2. Some lay blame at the feet of philanthropy.  From philanthropy forgetting about the white working class, to elite distance, there were many theories. But philanthropic historian Benjamin Soskis was perhaps most insightful: “We must admit that philanthropy…failed. With a few notable exceptions, grant makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic health. No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on which advocacy rests. There is a desperate need for more funding of grass-roots social-justice organizations that can speak to the anxieties and fears of Americans across the nation.”

  3. And there was real concern about what a Trump presidency could mean for the social change sector. Vu Le provided some balm to worried nonprofit leaders, David Callahan predicted 6 effects on the social change sector, and Lucy Bernholz worried about the impact on civil society. But at least in these early days, some nonprofits have actually seen a significant spike in support.

  4. Amid the soul-searching and prediction there were also many calls to action. NPQ offered 10 questions for nonprofit boards to ask themselves and 4 things for nonprofits to do post-election, Vu Le suggested nonprofits and foundations get on the same page, and Lucy Bernholz offered some practical advice.

  5. But perhaps most inspiring was Ford Foundation President Darren Walker urging social change leaders to stay hopeful because “We can, and must, learn from history that the greatest threat to our democracy is not terrorism, nor environmental crisis, nor nuclear proliferation, nor the results of any one election. The greatest threat to our democracy is hopelessness: the hopelessness of many millions who expressed themselves with their ballots, and the hopelessness of many millions more who expressed themselves by not voting at all. If we are to overwhelm the forces of inequality and injustice—if we are to dedicate ourselves anew to the hard and heavy lifting of building the beloved community—then the cornerstone of our efforts must be hope.”

  6. Amid the political upheaval, activism and protest were on the rise. The ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation continued to grow in size and attention in November.

  7. And Chobani yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has become something of a corporate activist by fighting for and employing immigrants and refugees.

  8. Writing on the Markets for Good blog, Andrew Means is completely over Overhead. Instead he encouraged us to move to a cost per marginal outcome metric to evaluate nonprofits. Yes!

  9. Beginning the 2017 predictions a bit early, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offered 5 Nonprofit Technology Trends to Watch in 2017.

  10. Along with the Gates Foundation, ideas42 is experimenting with a new approach to growing charitable giving in the US — helping individuals set philanthropy goals.  Fascinating.

Photo Credit: Emanuele Toscano

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5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have

douglas fairbanksChange is certainly happening within the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it. From efforts to make philanthropy better at addressing inequity, to movement away from the overhead myth (and other myths), we are witnessing important shifts in how we tackle (and fund that tackling of) social challenges.

But I’m hungry for more.

And more could emerge from honest and transparent conversations about what is holding the social change sector back. There are some key hurdles facing the sector, and we have no hope of finding solutions to those challenges unless we start some no holds barred conversations, like:

  1. What keeps nonprofits from creating more sustainable business models?
    Everyone understands that nonprofits are sorely under-resourced and struggle to find sustainable financing for their work. But few are trying to really understand how we change this reality sector-wide. A few funders have commissioned research on the state of money in the sector, but it’s not nearly enough. I would love to see a real, solutions-oriented conversation about a problem that everyone (nonprofit leaders, boards, funders) knows exists.

  2. Why do we hold nonprofits to a different standard than for-profits?
    Because the nonprofit sector was borne out of the charitable impulse, we continue to see it as more holy than and separate from the for-profit sector. Therefore we are uncomfortable with nonprofits being too political, raising too much money, or spending too much on infrastructure. As a stark example, the nonprofits working for reform to our fairly dysfunctional political system have many fewer resources for and many more restrictions on their efforts than the for-profit lobbyists that the nonprofit reformers are fighting.

  3. Why won’t we treat nonprofits as equal partners in the economy?
    Related to this, because the nonprofit sector emerged as a side-note to the business-driven economy, nonprofits have always been viewed as secondary to, and thus less valuable and important than, the private sector. But you simply cannot have one without the other. The nonprofit sector often provides the research and development, worker support, quality of life and other services that fuel the success and profits of the private sector. Without the nonprofit sector there would be less profit and a weaker economy. So we have to recognize the critical (and equal) role that nonprofits play in creating a strong economy. And we have to begin investing equally in the success of those nonprofits.

  4. Why are nonprofit boards largely ineffective?
    Another truism of the nonprofit sector is that boards just don’t work. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who doesn’t have at least some frustration with her board and many are resigned to their board’s deep dysfunction. It is extremely difficult to corral a group of volunteers, to be sure, but instead of accepting that challenge as a rule, let’s figure out how to fix it. Perhaps greater standards and regulations, perhaps compensation for their efforts — I don’t know what the right answer is, but let’s analyze the root causes of this inefficiency and change it.

  5. How do we direct more money to efforts that result in social change?
    There is much debate about whether donors want to give based on the results a nonprofit creates. But if the government is going to continue to off-load social interventions to the nonprofit sector, we don’t have the luxury of letting the funders of those nonprofits give solely based on emotion, reciprocity, or duty. You may not believe in “effective altruism” (the idea that philanthropy should flow to the most effective social interventions), but the fact remains that with mounting social problems and a resource-constrained and gridlocked government, a growing burden for addressing social challenges is falling to the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits will only be able to rise to this challenge if the solutions that work have enough resources to actually work. So let’s recognize the tension among increasing social problems, less government involvement, and lack of money and figure out how to fix it.

It’s time for bigger conversations. We have to openly face the challenges standing in the way of social change and figure out a way forward together.

Photo Credit: Paul Thompson

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The Future of the Nonprofit Sector [Slideshare]

I’m excited to be heading to Pennsylvania next month to speak at the 2016 Nonprofit Day Conference. My keynote address for the conference will be “The Future of the Nonprofit Sector.” I wanted to share an abbreviated version of the speech with you here via the Social Velocity Slideshare library.

In my mind, there are some fundamental shifts happening in the sector that will be important to watch. They include:

  • Increasing competition in the space
  • A greater demand for results and social change
  • An increased use of advocacy to achieve that change
  • A move to more “networked” approaches
  • Less “starving” nonprofits of their operational needs
  • And (of course) a move from fundraising to financing

These are interesting times, and they hold tremendous opportunity, I think, for the social change sector.

If you want to see other Social Velocity Slideshares go here. And if you want to learn more about inviting me to come speak to your group or event, check out my Speaking page.

The Future of the Nonprofit Sector from Nell Edgington

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What Unique Value Can a Foundation Create?

philanthropyI’ve started working in a new area of the social change space that I’m really excited about. Recently I’ve been helping some foundations figure out what market they are (and should be) in. Because if a foundation can be smarter and more strategic about figuring out where they should focus their efforts within a particular social problem, they will see a higher social return on their investment.

As I’ve said countless times, you cannot develop or execute on a strategy without really understanding the market in which you work. Although we might like to deny it, nonprofits (and foundations) exist in a market economy, which means that they (like everything else) must compete amid the other actors and entities in the space. So it is absolutely critical that leaders understand what unique value their work brings to the space. This can be done through a Marketplace Map, which is one of the first exercises (along with a Theory of Change) that I help nonprofit leaders create during a strategic planning process.

An organization is best positioned to create social change in a sustainable way when their core competencies (what the organization does better than anyone else) intersects with a set of social problems apart from potential competitors or collaborators. This is not at all to say that you shouldn’t collaborate. But when you do, you must clearly understand what you bring to the table that is distinct from and additive to what your competitors bring to the table. In mapping their marketplace, an organization can much more clearly understand and articulate their value proposition and can direct their resources more effectively to the realization of that value proposition.

And the same is true for foundations. I am ever optimistic that just as nonprofit leaders are getting smarter and more strategic about the work they do, foundation leaders are as well. I would love to see more foundations taking a step back and really analyzing the social change marketplace in which they operate and determining how they can bring unique value to that marketplace.

Let’s say for example a funder is really passionate about addressing climate change. But there are many moving parts in the marketplace of that social problem. There are scientists and researchers and other experts who have views on the problem and the efficacy of potential solutions. There are many nonprofits in many different categories working on various aspects of the larger problem. There are policies and policymakers who are addressing the issue in various ways. There are other foundations and philanthropists who are investing in different solutions. It can be overwhelming for any particular funder to know where they specifically can have an impact on a very complex climate change marketplace.

So I help the foundation analyze these various elements, where and how effectively each is operating, where trends effecting the social problem are moving, and where the particular funder can add unique value.

While I spend a good deal of time on this blog giving voice to the challenges of the nonprofit sector, there is no doubt that the philanthropy that funds the sector has room to grow as well. And in my mind, part of that growth involves foundations getting more strategic about exactly where they can create the most value with their dollars. Because if both nonprofits and the philanthropists that fund them can be smarter about the marketplace of social problems, we just might get closer to solving them.

Photo Credit: ribosomis

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The Role of the Independent Sector: An Interview with Dan Cardinali

Dan CardinaliIn this month’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Dan Cardinali, the new president and CEO of Independent Sector, a national membership organization that brings together nonprofits, foundations, and corporations to advance the common good.

Prior to leading Independent Sector, Dan was the president of Communities In Schools, the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, with operations in 26 states and the District of Columbia. While there he led efforts to develop and advance an evidence-based model of integrated student service provision and launched a national growth strategy to increase the organization’s impact on improving public education. He is a 2007 Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellow, serves as a trustee for America’s Promise, and is on the board of Child Trends. In May 2011 he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. He is also a member of the Leap Ambassador Community of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: You have just become the new head of Independent Sector (IS). In a diverse and growing nonprofit sector that includes many ecosystem organizations like Independent Sector, what do you think the value proposition is for IS? What is the unique role that IS can and should be playing?

Dan: We were founded by John Gardner who was of the sector and believed deeply in the importance of the sector. It was distinct from government and the for-profit sector and uniquely positioned to support the American project. It played a unique and critical role to sustain American democracy and was also a source of profound community co-creation, rising up to provide really good solutions where there were problems and innovating to help communities evolve and grow, and supporting culture and defending the environment. At a time when civil society is shrinking around the world, the independent sector has an even more important role to play.

As for our capital I, capital S organization’s value proposition, we are unique in the country in spanning the sector. We hold the entirety of the grant seeking and grant making organizations and that purview we want to steward very carefully and thoughtfully. We want to be hyper disciplined in a world where there are a number of infrastructure organizations doing really good work, not to duplicate but align and leverage through collaboration. But there are still holes in our estimation in the landscape of what the sector needs. So we are going to remain disciplined in our role as an organization that is sector spanning and national in scope, grounded deeply in community, to determine what we do to add value to the original vision for a more robust social sector.

Nell: Independent Sector can potentially play a unique role because it stands at the intersection between nonprofits and those who fund nonprofits. Is there a bigger role for IS to play in bringing those two sides closer together, breaking down the power dynamic and helping more money to flow to effective organizations? If so what does that look like?

Dan: We are playing a role and part of it is modeling that these are two sides of the same coin – grant seekers can’t exist without grant makers and grant makers can’t get along without grant seekers. It would be naïve to pretend that those with financial resources don’t have an advantage, yet I equally think in the social sector that grant seekers at times abdicate the power that comes with knowing what they know to be effective and owning that. The opportunity exists to partner with grant makers, not just in the transactional sense, but in the co-creation of solutions to ensure that culture flourishes and that the environment is protected and flourishes, and that problems are solved.

In the Threads conversations IS convened with more than 80 partners across the U.S., concerns about the power dynamic were voiced at every stop. In response, IS and member organizations and experts are cooperating to model the best strategies for working together. We need to refocus the relationship on bringing the needed human, financial, and intellectual resources to bear, calling all people of good will to a higher purpose, rather than organizational sustainability.

Nell: Recently 22 nonprofit infrastructure organizations (like GuideStar, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, etc.) wrote a public letter urging foundations to invest more in infrastructure organizations. Independent Sector was not one of the 22 organizations, but what are your thoughts on their argument and how does, or should, Independent Sector fit in?

Dan: What was encouraging about that letter from very reputable organizations is that it opened up a conversation. The philanthropic community has a role, an obligation, to support effective infrastructure organizations, and we have a responsibility to be effective. But IS will not be in a position to request that support without a discussion of what needs doing, how well we all are doing it, and how can we better leverage each other’s work. I am passionate about this topic, and I appreciate that this letter advanced the conversation. I expect IS will partner closely in the future conversations.

Nell: You come to IS after many years at the helm of Communities In Schools, which moved during your tenure to a very evidence-based approach. Do you see IS moving itself and/or helping the sector as a whole to move toward a more evidenced-based approach?

Dan: What we did at CIS was to create a virtuous circle between our programs and practice and our data and research to continually generate insights, make course corrections as needed, and build on success. This is how we roll. IS has been applying this approach for a long time. In the Threads conversations, we engaged practitioners using a credible analytic process. We listened to them, without presupposing what they would say, and we applied social science to produce a document, the Threads report. We then co-created a strategic framework that engages members and develops our partnership, just as we do with the IS conference coming up in November.

So the evidence-based approach is alive and well. Going forward we can look for ways to accelerate its use across the organization, through a thoughtful integration of technology and 21st century methods of engagement.

Photo Credit: Independent Sector

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Performance Management for Every Nonprofit: An Interview With Isaac Castillo

Castillo_IsaacIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Isaac Castillo, Director of Outcomes, Assessment, and Learning at Venture Philanthropy Partners, where he leads VPP’s approach to data collection, data reporting, and outcome measurement.

Prior to coming to VPP, Isaac served as the Deputy Director for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI).  At DCPNI, Isaac led efforts to improve outcomes in the Kenilworth-Parkside community in Ward 7 of the District of Columbia through the strategic coordination of programmatic solutions and research-based strategies. Prior to his time at DCPNI, Isaac served as a Senior Research Scientist at Child Trends where he worked with nonprofits throughout the United States on the development and modification of performance management systems and evaluation designs. In addition, Isaac was also the Director of Learning and Evaluation for the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) where he led the organization’s evaluation and performance management work.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.

Nell: You have spent your career using data to improve the performance of the nonprofits for which you worked. Why do you think performance management is so important for nonprofits? Do you think all nonprofits should pursue performance management? When does it make sense and when doesn’t it?

Isaac: I believe that every nonprofit should pursue some form of performance management because they owe it to the clients they serve. Most nonprofits will assume that they are making a positive difference in people’s lives, but in the vast majority of cases they are just guessing. Using some form of performance management will allow every nonprofit organization to confirm this thinking and to identify areas that can and should be improved so that the next cohort of participants can get better services than the last.

Unfortunately, one of the greatest challenges preventing a nonprofit from implementing some form of performance management isn’t a lack of resources, expertise, or time. It is fear. The fear that they will find out that their work isn’t having a positive effect. This fear is what nonprofit leaders need to overcome, not for the benefit of themselves or their organization, but because they owe it to the clients they serve today and the clients they will serve in the future. I believe that every nonprofit should strive to serve tomorrow’s clients better than today’s clients, and one of the only ways to ensure that this happens is the sustained use of performance management.

The type of performance management that each nonprofit should pursue should vary by the size and scope of their work. At a minimum, small nonprofits should be tracking basic demographic and attendance information on their participants, and hopefully at least one meaningful output or outcome. Whether this occurs in a computerized system or in a spiral paper notebook is up to the nonprofit. But it doesn’t have to be costly, and it doesn’t take expertise. It only takes the will and desire to improve as a nonprofit.

Nell: In the nonprofits in which you’ve worked how have you been able to secure resources to fund performance management? What is the case you and your colleagues have made to funders and what do you think it will take to get more funders investing in performance management?

Isaac: Raising funding for performance management work usually takes a mix of several different strategies and approaches for potential and existing funders.

First, I strongly encourage nonprofits to include some percentage (1 to 5 percent – possibly more) of funding in each grant submission or proposal dedicated to supporting performance management and outcome measurement work. By placing this small percentage into each proposal, a nonprofit can begin to raise funds for internal evaluation and performance management activities. It may not seem like a lot, but it can add up, and eventually generate enough funds for a half-time or full-time position to support in-house performance management work.

Second, I also strongly encourage nonprofits to engage in regular ‘funder education’ – where a nonprofit proactively meets with their funders to have ongoing conversations about outcome measurement and evaluation. This allows both the funder and the nonprofit to come to agreement on measurement expectations and to ensure that both groups are focused on the same concepts. I often suggest that the first of these types of meetings focuses on each group’s definitions of three commonly misunderstood terms: outputs, outcomes, and impact.

Finally, I would recommend that the nonprofit and funder have an honest discussion regarding expectations of results and the funding necessary to support the related evaluation work. If a funder is expecting an random control trial (RCT) to be completed to determine ‘impact,’ then the nonprofit should be willing to push the funder to support a large investment to pay for a high quality evaluation. If the funder is only willing to support a small amount for outcome measurement, then the nonprofit should clearly articulate what is possible.

Nell: Ken Berger and Caroline Fiennes recently argued that we may have gone too far by asking nonprofits to produce research about their own outcomes. What’s your response to that argument?

Isaac: I fully support Ken and Caroline in their argument that most nonprofits should stay away from trying to produce impact research. The desire for ‘impact’ is something that has been (and continues to be) pushed unfairly (and without financial support) by the funding community.

I honestly think a lot of confusion in this space comes from inconsistent use and understanding of the term ‘impact’. The term ‘impact’ has a precise definition among researchers but is often used in a much broader context among funders, nonprofits, and the general public. In the research and evaluation world, impact is used to describe the effectiveness of a program while eliminating as many potential confounding factors as possible. That is why the use of random control trials (RCTs) is usually the cornerstone of impact research – RCTs are the easiest way to control for and eliminate confounding factors.

When most non-researchers use the term ‘impact’ however, they are usually just asking if the program or organization works and if it is making a difference for its intended service population. That is a much lower bar to set, and yet it is a critical distinction in this discussion. If you are thinking about ‘impact’ as a researcher, you will need a large amount of resources and expertise to determine ‘impact,’ which usually means completing one or more formal evaluations. If you are thinking about ‘impact’ in the more general sense and less strict way, then pursuing some form of performance management system will allow a nonprofit to determine if their efforts have been successful.

I do think every nonprofit should pursue some form of performance management to ensure that their work is having a positive effect as a complement to existing research that others have done. Relying only on the use of others’ research does not guarantee that a nonprofit will provide effective services and achieve positive outcomes. This type of research is a like a recipe – it shows what has worked in the past and provides a guide for the nonprofit – but a recipe can still be ruined with poor implementation or planning.

Every nonprofit has an obligation to the people they serve (and not to their funders) to ensure that their programming is having a positive effect (or at the very least not causing harm). Without some form of performance management system in place (even one that just uses paper and pencil), a nonprofit will never know if they have strayed too far from the recipe provided by previous research.

I also think there are a growing number of very sophisticated nonprofits that should be using AND producing research on effective programs. Every year, I see more and more nonprofits that hire talented and unbiased researchers dedicated to internal evaluation and outcome measurement work. These individuals are just as talented and unbiased as their colleagues working in traditional research and evaluation organizations. They can, and should, produce original research that can help inform the nonprofit field. The real challenge comes in nonprofit organizations finding the resources to support the hiring and retention of these individuals. Not every nonprofit will have the resources or capacity to hire one or more of these individuals – but those that do should absolutely be trying to produce original outcome and impact research to provide ‘recipes’ for effective programming that nonprofits with fewer resources can use in the future.

Nell: Your former organization, DC Promise Neighborhoods, is part of the national Promise Neighborhoods Initiative launched by the US Department of Education in 2010 and modeled after the famous Harlem Children’s Zone. How successful has this national replication of a successful local model been? Have you been able to replicate outcomes? And what hurdles, if any, have you and other replication sites found?

Isaac: I think that there has been some initial success among the Promise Neighborhoods. Part of the challenge that all the Promise Neighborhoods face is that the Harlem Children’s Zone did not achieve their success overnight. They have been working in Harlem for decades, so it would be unrealistic to believe that the Promise Neighborhoods would be able to create large scale change in a matter of a few years.

However, there are signs of progress across all of the Promise Neighborhoods. Each of the Promise Neighborhoods started to address a few outcomes with the initial round of funding, and these outcomes varied. Some focused on math and reading proficiency for students, some focused on obtaining medical homes for young children, and others sought to increase the amount of healthy food consumed by residents. In DC, we focused on improving school attendance.

I do think that most of the 12 Promise Neighborhood Implementation grantees were able to make progress on the outcomes they identified as initial focus areas. However, the very nature of the work (creating community level change) doesn’t lend itself to the rapid accomplishment of multiple outcomes in a short period of time. Each of the Promise Neighborhoods had to prioritize certain outcomes for their respective communities, and only several years later are they able to claim success and begin to identify the next set of outcomes to be addressed. So while certain outcomes haven’t necessarily been replicated across all the Promise Neighborhoods, that is due to the differences in priorities and community conditions rather than any problem with the model itself.

Photo Credit: Venture Philanthropy Partners

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