Of metrics and mission, and a modest proposal

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.


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15 Responses to “Of metrics and mission, and a modest proposal”

  1. Michelle Moon Says:

    What a great exercise. I’m in strategic planning right now and will suggest this at our next meeting.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    So glad you think it will be helpful! I’ve valued your comments during the MetaFilter conversation and am delighted to have your input here.

  3. Nancy Schwartz Says:

    How about less than a sentence? Take a look at this:

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Nancy, That’s an advertising slogan, which is a different thing. The point of the We do X so that Y is not to pique people’s interest–it’s to summarize what an organization does and what it hopes to accomplish thereby. “New Art New Ideas” so that what? So that people who already understand art can see the latest thing? So that people who think art is for other people can see it’s for everyone? So that people who think creativity is a limited commodity will discover that it’s limitless? Those are the questions you want to answer in the exercise I’m proposing, so people who don’t already agree with you have a basis for coming to do so.

  5. Jeremy Gregg Says:

    I liked the way the Dr. Jeverley R. Cook of the Communities Foundation of Texas put it to me when I first entered the field: “We do the work that the government would have to do otherwise.”

  6. Stuart Barnes Jamieson Says:

    Jason Saul talks about something similar called the “to-by” test for mission statements.

    The “to” is the organization’s ultimate goal. Using portions of my own employer’s mission statement — Habitat for Humanity — as an example: “to develop communities with people in need…”

    Likewise the “by” is the methodolgy or what the organization does: “… by building and renovating houses…”.

    Personally, I would like to expand Saul’s “to-by” test into a “to-by-for” test, (and not simply because it is just “too cute” coming from Habitat!)

    The “for” would be the wider and greater good the organization is trying to accomplish: (quoting our mission statement again) “…so that there are decent houses in decent communities in which every person can experience God’s love and can live and grow into all that God intends.”

  7. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I, too, like to say we do the work the government would otherwise do; but after years of Republican rule, it’s hard even to secure a consensus that the government should make sure all children are adequately educated or all families safely housed; so I think we need to keep articulating our own vision, independent of the work of the other sectors. This is one of the few occasions on which I find myself in sympathy with people who dislike the term “nonprofit,” as suggesting merely something that ISN’T something else. How’s this? “Nonprofits do the things that matter most while working to persuade our fellow citizens that they matter enough for government to do them.”

  8. Nonprofiteer Says:

    The Jason Saul “to-by” test is new to me but confirms what I suspected: that I can’t be the only person to have thought that what we have here is a simple problem masquerading as a hard one.

    On the “to-by-for,” though, I must point out that you lost me with “for.” This is the risk of any disclosure, I suppose–that the more information you provide, the more likely you are to offend or alienate someone; but as soon as you started talking about God, you lost the support of this secularist for an activity that she otherwise would support. So then the question becomes whether the purpose of the statement is to attract additional support from a wider base (in which case the “for” is counter-productive) or to attract additional support from an identified base of religious people (in which case the “for” may be absolutely essential).

    Again: the point of the exercise I’ve proposed is TO RAISE MORE MONEY; very simple-minded. It’s not a testimony about the essential nature of your institution, except sort of by the way–it’s a statement about what you’re doing designed to help people determine whether they want to be involved. That, of course, requires you to decide whether you want them to be involved. If the most important thing about Habitat is the housing, you don’t want to be alienating me; but if the most important thing about Habitat is the worship, you don’t want my support to begin with. Either result is fine; just make sure you know which one you’re trying to achieve.

    And by the way (and then I’ll let this drop): like any other communication, this “to-by” or “to-by-for” statement carries cultural baggage. That’s inevitable; but make sure you’re not hauling around any superfluous hatboxes. Evangelical Christianity has a distinctive style of speaking about service to God, one that may well put off even religious people whose traditions don’t include speaking about the Supreme Being in that particular personal fashion. Again, that’s fine; but make sure you know the costs of your rhetorical choices.

  9. Stephen Peelor Says:

    Fantastic idea – I will try and get my board to do it.

  10. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Please let me know how it seems to work (or not)–doubtless it’s a weapon best sharpened by widespread use.

  11. Mark Rovner Says:

    Love this!

    Here’s my favorite real-life mission statement:

    “The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans.”

  12. Michael Moody Says:

    I applaud the idea of reflecting on mission as the first step toward any sort of evaluation. Your approach to stating a mission is interesting also, but let me offer an alternative. Hank Rosso, founder of The Fund Raising School (now based at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana) used to teach fund raisers that they should avoid the use of the word “to” in their mission statements. Your organization’s mission, he said, was an answer to the question, “Why do we exist?” That is, what is the state of affairs in the world that causes you and others to organize or support a group in response?

    So, to take your example, the mission of the YMCA is that there are too many youths in our communities today that are at risk of violence, obesity, and alienation (or whatever the YMCA defines as part of the problems they seek to address). The fact that the world is like this is why the YMCA exists. Then, taking this statement of mission as a starting point, an organization can then define its goals (which follows directly from the stated problem that is the mission), and can lay out the whole array of programs and plans that they use to address this mission. While semantically this takes some getting used to, there are benefits of describing mission in this way. For one, it focuses the organization and its donors and volunteers on the cause and the goals rather than on specific programs (eyes on the prize, if you will). And also, it is more enduring as a mission statement because it allows for programs and activities (the “we do” part) to change, as they often do (or should) over the course of organizational maturity and trial-and-error.

    Anyway, my main point here is to say I applaud the idea of focusing on mission. Rosso’s approach provides another way of doing so.

  13. Nonprofiteer Says:

    You’ve described a powerful way to develop a mission statement against which to measure activities (“Does X program really promote our cause?”), and I applaud it for that. My own version is designed to do something much narrower, namely, articulate purpose and programs to prospective supporters in a single sentence–again, because some will agree with purpose and some with programs, thereby doubling your pool of donors. Clearly, that’s not a basis on which you would choose programs to begin with–but nonprofits who focus on purpose to the exclusion of programs when talking to prospective supporters are often surprised to discover that most people don’t know what they do! I’m so simple-minded that the question of “what they do” occurred to me even when faced with the Monterey Aquarium’s elegantly simple statement: to inspire conservation by doing what? Obviously, by running an aquarium–but what that consists of, and who gets to participate in it, has to be as clear from the outside as from the inside if you’re going raise money based on it.

    Really, if I could think of something to call my “Doing X so that Y” formulation other than a mission statement, we’d all be better off–because a genuine mission statement has myriad purposes, and my activities/results formulation really has only one: to help people find a point of connection with your agency.

  14. Michael Moody Says:

    Good points. And one would hope that those donors who get interested because of programs might stay interested because of purpose, and vice versa.

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