Just a few years ago, the only measure for a nonprofit’s effectiveness was the percent they spent on overhead expenses. If a nonprofit spent a magic 20% or less on non-program expenses they were deemed worthy of donations. This destructive way of evaluating nonprofit organizations has been losing favor over the last few years as rating agencies like Charity Navigator have recognized the need for a broader evaluation of nonprofit effectiveness. New measures have started to include outcome and impact elements.
But all of this begs the ultimate question which is how do we create a system for measuring and comparing nonprofits across the many social issues and operating models that make up the sector? Because however faulty the overhead percentage measurement was, at least it allowed a comparison of apples to apples. You could see how one nonprofit stacked up against another. But if each nonprofit organization is now creating their own theory of change, and their own outcome and impact measurements, how do we compare those to another nonprofit’s outcome and impact measures?
Enter a host of efforts to solve that very problem. One of these efforts is Markets for Good. They aim to create an infrastructure for evaluating nonprofit effectiveness based on outcomes and impact. You can watch their video explaining their efforts below, or if you are reading this in an email click here to watch the video.
And there are many other efforts to move the nonprofit sector toward measuring outcomes instead of spending practices. These include Idealistics, GiveWell, Philanthropedia among many others. But it’s not clear yet how any of these efforts will be able to analyze and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts because there are many pieces to that puzzle.
To truly be able to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts, we have to:
- Encourage nonprofit organizations to develop a theory of change, because you can’t measure whether an organization has created change if they have no idea what they are trying to change in the first place.
- Give nonprofits resources with which to measure whether their theory of change is actually coming to fruition. Measuring outcomes and impact takes time and money.
- Separate a single nonprofit’s efforts to create change from other forces working on the same social problem so that we can understand the effectiveness of a single organization.
- Create a standardized system for comparing the ability of one nonprofit organization to create change to another’s ability to create change.
- Connect such a system for measuring nonprofit effectiveness to systems already being created for for-profit social entrepreneurs (like GIIRS) so that those with money to invest in social change efforts can compare the social return they would get in a for-profit and/or nonprofit setting.
- Communicate the results of those measures to philanthropic and social investors so they can make more informed, more results-focused investments, whether those be to nonprofit or for-profit social change organizations.
To me, comparing the ability of organizations to create social change is an enormous nut to crack. But it is an incredibly worthy endeavor. I applaud Markets for Good and the many other efforts working to create a system for understanding and comparing social change efforts. It will be fascinating to watch this space develop.
Photo Credit: KJGarbutt
Sean is a visionary leading the charge to transform philanthropy. He is CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, a philanthropy advisory firm. He is also the author of the very popular Tactical Philanthropy blog and writes a monthly column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Philanthropy & Social Investing and his insights on philanthropy have been referenced in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Financial Times.
Nell: At the first Social Capital Markets Conference (SoCap) in 2008 one of the keynoters said “we’re not here to talk about nonprofits.” We’ve come a long way from there to this year’s devoted track around philanthropic capital and the nonprofit space at SoCap. Where do you think the initial hesitance to connect philanthropic and impact investing came from? And how do we continue to integrate the two worlds?
Sean: I think that one of the segments of people who are attracted to impact investing are people who think philanthropy doesn’t work. While I view philanthropic and for-profit social capital to be part of a single continuum of capital, many people seem to feel that they are fundamentally different. Like most new ideas, early adopters often think it is a silver bullet that will “change everything”. Some early adopters of impact investing or other forms of for-profit social capital wrongly believe that impact investing will replace philanthropy. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding. Continuing to integrate the two worlds will require helping the various points on the capital spectrum better understand each other. At the end of the day, capital shouldn’t be viewed through an ideological lens, but should simply be deployed based on what sort of capital fits the situation.
Nell: The SoCap session on nonprofit rating systems like Charity Navigator and GiveWell demonstrated that there is still quite a divide between GIIRS (the impact investing rating system) and nonprofit rating systems. What is your sense of this? Do you think there is potential to somehow combine GIIRS (or something else) and nonprofit rating systems so that there is one comparable impact measurement system?
Sean: I would guess that any truly effective impact measurement system should be functional across both for-profit and nonprofit activity. A good impact assessment system wouldn’t care about the tax status of the entity producing results, it would just care about the results and the cost of obtaining them. That being said, I think evaluating a nonprofit organization is really quite different from evaluating a for-profit organization. So even if we have a unified impact assessment framework some day, I would guess that organizational assessment will utilize different systems and approaches for nonprofit and for-profit organizations.
Nell: How would you like to see the conversation about connecting philanthropy and impact investing evolve at SoCap11? What are your hopes for next year’s conference?
Sean: I’d like to work to profile more examples of ways that for-profit and philanthropic capital worked together to produce social impact. Our session on Evergreen Lodge at this year’s conference looked precisely at this question, but I’d like to see more examples. I’d also like to see examples of ways philanthropic entities have used for-profit investments or subsidiaries well or for-profits have effectively used philanthropic activities to drive profit and social results. However, one of the most important goals is simply getting the different players into the same room and getting them to come to understand each other better. While Kevin Jones and I had a good time talking about the Social Capital Markets as a meeting ground for the Barbarians and Byzantine, in reality none of us are barbarians.
Nell: Beyond SoCap where do you think the important conversations about unlocking philanthropic and government capital for social impact are happening?
Sean: This is an interesting question. SoCap is special because it is one of the only (the only?) conference that is specifically about capital for social impact without regard for sector. But versions of this conversation are happening around Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, The Social Innovation Fund, online and in a different sort of way at the PopTech conference.
Nell: At the last general session of SoCap Woody Tasch of the Slow Money movement said he doesn’t think mission-related investing will ever be adopted by the majority of foundations. What are your thoughts on that?
Sean: Social Responsible Investing, the practice of screening out stocks of tobacco companies, defense contractors and the like from investment portfolios, is not practiced by a majority of investors. Yet, SRI is very mainstream and has significantly altered the behavior of publicly traded companies. Today, SRI mutual funds are one of the fastest growing areas in money management. So I don’t think that the majority of funders have to adopt mission related investing for the concept to be deemed a success. It should be noted that SRI took a good 20 years or so to go mainstream. So it could be some time before mission related investing is considering mainstream.
Nell: And more broadly, what do you think it will take to change how philanthropists (both foundations and individual donors) use money to support social impact? How do we make more donors builders instead of just buyers?
Sean: Today, I think that very few people in the social sector really understand what “philanthropic equity” is and how capital differs from revenue. Nonprofit accounting does not acknowledge that capital even exists in the sector. Nonprofits can only book cash coming into their business as revenue or a loan. There’s no official way to account for equity-like capital. So I think that there needs to be a pretty major education effort to get the whole sector very clear on how fundamentally different it is for a funder/donor to “invest” philanthropic equity in a nonprofit vs paying a nonprofit revenue to execute programs. Personally, I don’t think much progress will be made until nonprofit accounting changes. Until that happens, it doesn’t matter much what we call “growth capital”, it is all just revenue to the nonprofit.
Day 2 of SoCap was by far my favorite. It started with an interesting keynote from Julie Sunderland of the Gates Foundation. She offered a perhaps more realistic, bordering on the pessimistic, view of the social capital market space. She said that Gates struggles to find entities that can absorb the size investments they want to make. They get excited about the idea of bringing together foundation, government and private dollars in stacked deals, but that the work is complicated and hard and they have yet to craft one of these deals simply because it is extremely difficult to determine the terms. All of this underlines what I’ve said in a previous post: in the nonprofit, philanthropic and government worlds there is still much work to be done to unlock capital.
The first session of the day for me was “Lessons of Behavioral Finance: Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Impact Investing” with Hope Neighbor and her ground-breaking research, Money for Good, released earlier this year calculating a $120 billion pool of potential impact investing money that is sitting on the sidelines. Hope said that despite our desires to the contrary, people still very much think of their charitable giving as separate from their impact investing, “the reality is that people compartmentalize their money.” And only 3% of the population uses data to compare the organizations they give to.
My favorite session of the day, by far, was “Deep Dive Into the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative.” This session was exactly what I was hoping to see more of at SoCap this year. A group of leaders in Cleveland realized that the heart of their city was quickly deteriorating and no one was doing anything about it. They formed a coalition of the anchor institutions in Cleveland (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Clinic, etc), foundations, city leaders and others to create the Evergreen Cooperatives that brings career-track jobs and green, employee-owned businesses to the inner city, transforming a city that has lost 50% of its population in the last 50 years. Beyond the fascinating coalition, business model and results this project is achieving, lies its impressive financing. A combination of bonds, foundation grants, loans, HUD money and others launched this project and financed the 3 businesses they currently operate (a green laundry, an organic greenhouse, and a solar power company). According to Evergreen leaders, “Cleveland wants to be where the world is going, not where the world is.”
To scale this project to create 5,000 jobs (the area needs 46,000 jobs), which will be the impetus to truly transform the inner city economy, they are creating a CDFI and looking to use PRIs and MRIs. What excites me so much about this project is not the spirit of collaboration and tremendous results, but how they are bringing public, private and philanthropic money together in a truly innovative convergence. THIS is the kind of social capital market I’m talking about. Impact investing is great, but it is only ONE piece of the puzzle. I would love to see more examples like Evergreen at SoCap.
The last breakout session I attended for the day was “Nonprofit Analysis: Beyond Metrics,” which gave a great overview of the growing nonprofit evaluators market through the lens of rating one nonprofit, DC Central Kitchen. It was interesting to see how Charity Navigator, the most well-known nonprofit evaluator, has evolved from a system driven purely by IRS 990 form overhead ratios to a three-pronged review including transparency and impact evaluations.
The end of the session gave me serious pause, however, when a member of the audience asked whether any of the evaluators might use the GIIRS system coming out of the impact investing world to rate nonprofit impact. Ken Berger admitted he wasn’t familiar with GIIRS and Tim Ogden of GiveWell said he was skeptical of social return on investment (SROI) calculations in general. Again, my point that the philanthropic and impact investing worlds aren’t communicating and collaborating becomes apparent. Wouldn’t that be amazing if impact in both the philanthropic and impact investing worlds could be measured in a comparable way? That would be truly innovative!
So, although Day 2 of SoCap provided much more conversation and examples of how the philanthropic and government capital markets are evolving, there is still much work to be done to bring both capital fully into the social capital market. Perhaps at SoCap 2011?
Photo Credit: Markets for Good
In the August installment of our Social Velocity interview series, we are talking with Lucy Bernholz, founder and President of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. a strategy consulting firm for philanthropic institutions and individuals. She is also the author of many seminal books (including the prescient Creating Philanthropic Capital Markets), reports (like Disrupting Philanthropy) and her famous Philanthropy 2173 blog. Lucy is considered a visionary in the philanthropic world and is doing tremendous work to move philanthropy forward.
Nell: You have become increasingly interested in data sharing and crowd-sourcing for change. What are the risks in these new forms of social problem solving?
Lucy: Data are not objective – quantitative data is subjectively collected, categorized, sourced, and analyzed and its “reputation” as neutral is unearned. Using data well requires skills that most of us don’t have – statistical analysis, methods, etc.
That said, when I talk about data I mean “anything that can be digitized.” Stories. Video. Anecdotes. Numbers. We may not all have all the skills to make sense of every type of data, that is partly why crowds are important. For decades, only experts and the wealthy had access to data – so their subjective analyses dominated the discussion. Now, many of us – crowds – can have access, make sense of, add nuance, ask questions. That changes the “subjectivity” and changes the dynamic. Data are disruptive when access to them is broad, cheap, and easy.
We still need to be skeptical, ask questions, and think deeply about the biases behind both data collection and presentation. But, as computer programmers say, “many eyes make for shallow bugs.” Crowds and data are two sides of the same coin when it comes to disrupting the social sector.
Nell: In Disrupting Philanthropy you examine the long tails of donors (foundation and individual contributors of money for social change) and doers (nonprofits, social entrepreneurs receiving that money) and how information technology is connecting the two. But as a future teller, how and when do you see more conservative/fearful nonprofits and philanthropists embracing these new technologies? What is the tipping point?
Lucy: There are few pressures on endowed foundations to change their behavior. It is hard to force this change from the outside.
The drivers of change in this day and age include new expectations about information at a societal level, the government 2.0 movement, the skills of two to three generations of employees and managers in using online tools and finding information when they want it. These are the soft, cultural, and ultimately most meaningful drivers of change. Regulations that require more disclosure, new expectations of transparency, efforts such as The Foundation Centers Glasspockets.org, the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s assessments are other possible influencers of the timeline.
That said, don’t discount the inevitable backlash against transparency, which is coming. Recent online “revelations” that have been fueled by political agendas and resulted in “flash decision making” highlight the need for all of us to be careful about the pace of information, believing everything we read, and the need for thoughtful, investigative, well-referenced and fact checked information. As Craig Newmark says, the news business is the “immune system of democracy.” As the news business is caught in this wildly transformative moment, we must all consider where we get our information, how we use it, who provided it to us, and what its credibility is. There is no straight line to widespread adoption of new tools – it is episodic and includes strange diversions.
Nell: Where does government fit into the connection between donors and doers? What can/should government do to encourage use of data sharing, crowd-sourcing, etc.?
Lucy: The government 2.0 movement is way ahead of nonprofits and foundations in the open sharing of data. That said, most of this is a “supply side” effort at this point – cities, states, and federal agencies shoveling data over the wall into the public domain with little knowledge of what information communities want or need and even less support for communities to use the information well. Firehousing data into the public domain is one thing, but it is not enough (It can also work to distract – “You want data? Here have it all”)
As for nonprofits and foundations, the data disclosure requirements of the new 990 are small steps in the right direction. Most of what will happen as far as nonprofits and foundations sharing their data is likely to be voluntary, led by innovators, and taken up by others over time as communities and constituents learn to ask for what they want. The expanding ecosystem of nonprofit ratings/raters – from GiveWell to Greater Nonprofits to Philanthropedia to National Councils of Nonprofit Analysts, etc. will also spur this.
The proposed legislation, HR 5533, which calls for a national council on nonprofits and a central system for tracking nonprofits as funded by federal agencies is the wildcard here – if it passes, the data game on nonprofits and philanthropy will change. How so, and whether for the better, I can’t say at this time because I just don’t know enough (yet) about what is being proposed, how it is supposed to work, and how it will really work (if enacted).
Nell: As you mention in Disrupting Philanthropy, 10 years ago socially responsible investment was a small niche, but now it makes up 10% of professionally managed investment funds. How much bigger will it grow? How much can mission and money be blended in our economy?
Lucy: Socially responsible screened assets have been growing for more than a decade. This is a multi-decade trend that is growing mostly outside of the realm of the charitable and philanthropic sector and within the realm, incentives, and returns of the mutual fund business. Philanthropic efforts to connect to these assets and to promote Mission Related, Program Related spending are only now getting real traction and advocacy from within philanthropy.
Nell: Your focus is largely on philanthropy, but what do you think nonprofits should be doing to tap into these trends and take advantage of the long tails of donors and doers?
Lucy: Nonprofits are experimenting with every tool to reach the long tail that they can – from “donate now” buttons to text giving. For the most part, the process has been focused on marketing and fundraising. The exciting changes are happening where we see people developing solutions that take the digital connectivity and data as the starting point for the work they are trying to do – think about Ushahidi or CrisisCommons – their entire programs/projects/initiatives/governance models/organizations are built on deep understanding of the power of disbursed long tails. That is powerful.
Nell: Because you are such a proponent of data and measurement, what do you make of the emotional part of giving? Do you think we can ever get to a place where it’s all about the data? And should we want to?
Lucy: I have always said that philanthropy is a business of passion – it is largely emotional. The use of data, as Hope Neighbor’s recent report shows, is a small part of the process of philanthropic decision making. And it will always happen within the personal interests of donors. And please remember, when I say data, I don’t mean just numbers.
It’s a new year and a new decade, and both hold tremendous promise for creating real social change. And key to significant social change is a fundamental restructuring of how we finance that change. I think (hope) that in the next decade we will see the emergence of a new Social Impact Finance. And I imagine it will look something like this:
- Social Impact Funds Become Commonplace. Experiments like the Federal Social Innovation Fund (which combines government and private money to fund the growth of proven nonprofit models), Village Capital Fund (seed funding for social entrepreneurs, determined by social entrepreneurs), social investment funds like Good Capital, and venture philanthropy funds like New Profit and SeaChange Capital Partners are expanded and become commonplace. Seed and growth funding for nonprofit, for-profit, and hybrid social impact organizations becomes more readily available and accepted.
- Foundations Get Risky. Foundations deny their risk-aversion heritage and provide risk capital for social innovation, whether through their customary 5% cap for nonprofit donations, or social investments from their corpus, or by foregoing dreams of perpetuity and giving all their money away on a big bet or two. See Nathaniel Whittemore’s great post on this.
- Individual Donors Become a Powerhouse. Technology finds a way to harness the power of individual donors toward significant social change. Currently, individual donations make up the vast majority of funding entering the nonprofit sector, yet their gifts are fragmented. With the potential of a new nonprofit rating system on the horizon, and social media’s growing ability to gather and marshal individual participants, there could be a pivotal shift in how individual donations flow to the nonprofit sector, and how significant those individual donations become to nonprofits creating demonstrable social impact.
- Nonprofits Understand the Power of Finance. Nonprofit organizations understand and become successful at financing their overall operations, instead of fundraising for them. And they begin to think bigger about their work, the overall outcomes they are trying to achieve and how finance fits into that (The GiveWell blog did a great series on the “Room for More Funding Question.”)
The end result of these and other changes will be, I hope, that “Social Impact” and “Finance” are no longer separate terms that have no bearing on each other, but instead inextricably linked concepts that create a better world.
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