The costs of evaluation

A grantor-grantee consortium known as has just issued a very smart report called “Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose.” As its title suggests, the report offers a skeptical take on the current craze for evaluation while pointing out the day-to-day costs of seeking grant support. Those costs are the reason the Nonprofiteer urges her clients to spend their fundraising time soliciting individual gifts instead of writing grants. But the report also makes clear that grantseeking could be a much lower-cost activity without depriving grantmakers of information they require to judge success or its likelihood.

For one thing, foundations could adopt a uniform grant application. It’s not clear why (other than ego) previous efforts to standardize application forms have ended up producing nothing but additional variation. Surely there’s someone in the grantmaking world with enough clout to push through this simple change, which makes up in utility what it lacks in sex appeal.

The report’s most provocative observation is that grantors’ evaluation demands of grantees are the philanthropic equivalent of outsourcing–that is, securing services from underpaid and unrepresented workers. Not only are grantors better positioned than grantees to assess outcomes by the simple fact of their seeing more of them, they’re uniquely positioned–being that it’s their money–to determine what constitutes success. By all means bring grantees to the table in deciding whether “success” is, e.g., having victims of domestic violence leave their homes or remain in their homes, and by all means require grantees to document in what proportions their clients are leaving or remaining. But any more detailed analysis of consequences is properly the work of people who have resources with which to assess them rather than those who–up to their ass in alligators–are trying to remember that the objective is to drain the swamp.

Saddest but truest in the report? The observation that charities get tempted to do things irrelevant to their mission if there’s a big grant available for doing so. The good news is that charities can cure this condition all by themselves, regardless of what the grantors do. Stop letting the fundraising tail wag the operating dog. Do what you do, and find people who want to support that.

Which leads us back to where we started: in the not-very-long run, individual giving is the better deal.


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6 Responses to “The costs of evaluation”

  1. Richard Bearman Says:

    thanks; I also thought it was a smart report, and not just because my daughter, a very smart young lady, was involved in it.

  2. Jeane Goforth Says:

    Thanks for confirming our instincts. Still finding the non-profit industrial complex somewhat of a disappointment. If I had known when I was just a simple small donor, my giving decisions would have been much different.

  3. Dan Bassill Says:

    I posted the report with a variety of related reports in the LINKS Library at

    I’d like to move a step further to where the web site of a non profit is its proposal, and where donors learn to choose who they support by first saying “what cause” then “what country” then “what zip code”. Once you get to that level of detail there are not too many choices. If the donor is committed to help the people in that zip code, they might need to be helping a non profit get better at what it does, or they might take a role of helping a good non profit stay good.

    If just a fraction of donors made giving decisions based on this thinking it would lower the costs of fund raising, making more dollars available to programs. It could also lower the emotional costs of fund raising, resulting in more people staying in their leadership roles longer, which would have a huge impact on the quality and impact an organization has using the donor’s dollars.

  4. cfctreasures Says:

    I think the nonprofit sector would do well to remember that not everything of value can be measured or expressed in dollar terms, Here’s a quote by Bobby Kennedy that is a favorite of mine:

    “The GNP (Gross National Product) measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

    Bobby Kennedy, Speech at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, March 18, 1968

    I first posted this on my blog, and I absolutely agree with your points about the limits of the evaluation mentality.

    The Good Samaritan & “Performance Measurement”
    by Bill Huddleston

    Currently, there’s a lot of hype in the world about being “results oriented” and the culture of “performance management” has seeped its way into almost every realm of American life, including business, government and now, the non-profit world as well.

    Well, why shouldn’t it? Doesn’t it sound like it’s the only way to be, after all, who could be “against results” or against “performance measurement.” It sounds great, but like the question, “When did you stop beating your wife (or husband)?” it sets the stage in an extremely negative, and skewed fashion.

    Let’s use a historical example, the story of the good Samaritan from the Bible is one that I believe is so widely known that it qualifies as a societal story, not just a religious one.

    To recap, in the parable a traveler is robbed, beaten, stripped of his clothes and left for dead. Two different people walk by, leaving the robbery victim alone. Then a man from Samaria (the Good Samaritan) comes upon the man, and even though the two different groups hated each other, he stops to render aid. The Samaritan takes pity on the victim, bandages him, pours oil and wine on his wounds, then puts the victim on his donkey and takes him to an inn and takes care of him. The next day, the Good Samaritan gives the innkeeper two dineri (this was about a month’s earnings at the time) and tells the innkeeper, “Look after him, and when I return I will reimburse you for any extra expense you have.” (The story is from Luke 10:29-35).

    Now let’s apply modern performance measurement and outcome techniques to this story. With 2000 years of history the story still resonates, how many people have been helped because someone remembered the story of the Good Samaritan and acted in a way that was not perhaps their first impulse? We will never know, and to the performance management crowd, this incident would be recorded today as “too expensive” and “ineffective” – after all, the Samaritan only helped one person. We don’t know if the Samaritan ever came back and paid those extra expenses, and it was a month’s earnings to help just this one person.

    It would also received the rating of : “Results Not Demonstrated” – we don’t know if the victim ever recovered, was permanently injured, or had mental impairment due to his injuries. All we know is that he had the crap beat out of him, multiple people walked by, until the “unclean” Samaritan stopped to help.

    According to the performance measurement tools, the Good Samaritan “program” was a failure and had no impact.

    I think not.

    Copyright Bill Huddleston, All rights reserved.

  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    It is indeed difficult to measure impact adequately, as I was reminded last night by seeing a play about the murder of Emmett Till. No one would advocate murdering young men as a technique for achieving political progress, but it’s indisputable that one led to the other. So it behooves us all to be a little bit humble about our ability to project outcomes from the inputs we support. Let me at least lend my voice to cries for humility instead of arrogance on the part of funders.

  6. Nonprofiteer Says:

    And let me endorse Mr. Bassill’s suggestion that we move toward having nonprofits’ Websites serve as their proposals, if only to save time and energy. Every funder interested in reducing fundraising costs should concur.

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