More on measurement

Though in the words of the great Jim Hightower "There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos," the Nonprofiteer would like to clarify her skeptical stance on measurement of nonprofit results: while she doesn’t embrace evaluation whole-heartedly, she’s not in the camp of the "what we do can’t be measured" people, either.  Every nonprofit should be prepared to answer, in some fashion, some variant of two questions:

  • What have you done, and for how many?
  • How much does it cost?

Thus, it’s not acceptable to say (as used to be the tendency in domestic violence agencies), "This is a very complicated problem–people don’t leave abusive relationships readily–there are many psychological dimensions to be worked on–blah-blah-blah."  Let’s assume all that is true: it’s still reasonable for a donor to ask, "Do you help people live free of abusive relationships?  Can you demonstrate that?"  If the answer is, "We’ve never placed a single victim of domestic abuse in a permanent non-abusive setting," then you’re a failure, no matter how complicated the problem is–and if you have no answer, that’s the answer it’s reasonable for a donor to supply his/herself.  But if the answer is, "It takes our clients an average of three tries to move into permanent non-abusive settings, which is better than the national average of five tries" (or even, "equal to the national average of three tries"), then you’re people working ably on a difficult problem. 

Make sure you know which it is–even if no donor ever asks, it’s the only way to make sure you’re actually improving people’s lives instead of just congratulating yourself on the rightness of your principles.

Similarly, you should be able to tell people how much it costs you to serve a single client, and whether that’s more or less than the average cost in your field.  It’s fine if it’s more, so long as you can show what you provide that isn’t provided by others.  Again, even if no donor ever asks, you have to know your costs of service and those of comparable providers–what the big bad for-profit world calls "competitors"–in order to assure yourself that you’re spending wisely.

So by all means evaluate and measure: just do it so it’s a genuine management tool.  If you also have to evaluate and measure dumb things because the funders say so, well, that’s life in the nonprofit world; just make sure you know the difference between what they’re asking and what you really need to know.

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One Response to “More on measurement”

  1. Carol Says:

    Seems reasonable enough, but keep in mind that: 1) conducting a good program evaluation can be expensive and time consuming, 2) it’s generally difficult for people who are not trained researchers to design and implement good evaluations, 3) most nonprofits don’t have researchers on staff and can’t afford to hire them, and 4) it’s all-too-common today to demand more out of charitable and social service organizations than is reasonable to expect them to deliver, given the balance between their limited resources, the larger social forces negatively impacting many people’s lives, and the limited effectiveness of most targeted interventions in effecting lasting positive change.

    Of course it is good to track what you’re spending your money on and be honest about what you think that you’re accomplishing. However, the challenge of proving significant accomplishments, particularly if defined as effecting lasting change in very difficult situations or highly troubled or stressed individuals or groups, by means of a serious program evaluation should not be underestimated.

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