The cries for evaluation and measurement in the nonprofit sector are, if anything, more deafening now that the much-ballyhooed Givewell.net evaluation site/system has embarrassed itself with deceptive marketing practices. (Brief summary here; if you want more, there are discussions on GiftHub, on the blog of GiveWell Board member Lucy Bernholz, on PhilanTopic, and of course at MetaFilter itself.) Apparently transparency is as transparency does, or not.
Here’s the Nonprofiteer’s idea about measurement: that every nonprofit agency spend an hour writing a mission statement (stop groaning) in the following form:
We do [activity] so that [result will occur].
One of these for Starbuck’s might read:
We make coffee, so that communities have a place in which to gather.
Someone deciding whether or not to invest in Starbuck’s would then have two items of information which could be evaluated independently. They might think, "What the world needs is a good $2 cup of coffee. It won’t lead to community, but who gives a damn?" and so they’d invest. Or they might think, "Coffee generates communities, and what the world needs is a good $2 community" and so they’d invest. Or they might think, "Coffee could generate communities, and if it doesn’t at least it won’t damage communities," and so they’d invest. Or they might think, "The most important thing in the world is community, and nothing destroys community like an infestation of corporate capitalism," and so they’d take their money elsewhere.
In the nonprofit world, you’ll get to do the same thing. "The YMCA provides athletic opportunities for neighborhood residents, so they’ll be safe from violence." Donors might think, "Athletic opportunities really are a terrific way to take kids off the
street, where they might perpetrate or be victims of violence," and
invest because they believe in process and result alike. Or they might think, "Well, athletic opportunities will reduce obesity, and I’m in favor of that, so I’ll support them even though I doubt they reduce violence in any way"–that is, invest because they believe process will produce a different, but also good, result. Or, "Athletics don’t seem to have much to do with reducing violence, but it couldn’t hurt and the goal is worthy enough to gamble that the people who think it works know something I don’t"–indifference about process coupled with enthusiasm for result and faith in actors=investment. Or donors might think, "Athletics just teach kids socially-approved means of violence, but the YMCA building is certainly a safe house in a tough neighborhood" (doubt about process, support of result=investment). Or "Athletics teaches kids to value the wrong things, and the time they spend in the Y would be better spent in a local library," and direct your money there (rejection of process, support of result=investment elsewhere).
Say the words "mission statement" to your staff and there will be instant weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, presumably because creating one is generally as difficult and unrewarding as having root canal. So DON’T say those words or (god forbid) "visioning;" just get your staff and Board together and for one hour–60 minutes! No more! If you can do it in 15, so much the better!–compel the group to fill in the blanks:
We do X [activity] so that Y [result] will occur.
We conduct educational campaigns so the public will demand legislation outlawing smoking.
We purchase and serve meals to poor people so they won’t be hungry enough to steal from their neighbors, that is, us.
We commission and perform new plays so we can keep alive a sense that it’s important to experience things in other people’s company and not just alone at our computers.
We research cures for cancer so people will stop dying of it.
Note: "so that" NOT "because". If you use the word "because" you’ll end up with statements like, "We produce plays BECAUSE drama is important," that is, ideas at a level of generality too great to be useful. "Because" means "why?" which is one of those huge, cloud-shape questions. You want "So that," which means "to create X result". Let your donors decide why that result matters, or doesn’t.
Why bother? Because (the Nonprofiteer fearlessly predicts) people will give you money more often. EITHER they’ll think your activity is valuable in and of itself (and will pay for it); OR they’ll agree with your reasoning that your activity will lead to your outcome and they like both (and will pay for it); OR they’ll be so gung-ho about your outcome that they’ll be willing to gamble that your activity will actually produce it.
Someone–Woody Allen?–said "Reality is a collective hunch." Your goal is to make your hunch the reality–and all our talk about "evaluation" and "assessment" and "effectiveness" and "efficiency" boils down to making a reasonable case that your hunch–about activity, outcome, or both–is a good one.
And that’s something you can do without spending a lot of time answering questionnaires from researchers who imagine they’ve figured out a single answer to the question, "What should all charities do, and how?"
The best answer to that question should be provided by every charity to every prospective donor. It should be the headline on your Website:
"We do BLANK so that BLANK will occur. Won’t you help us make that happen?"
Every charity able to fill in those two blanks will be able to fill in its coffers, too.