No one will dispute that times are tough for nonprofit organizations. Formerly dependable sources of funding have dried up, long-time supporters have cut their levels of support, and the costs of addressing the needs of the vulnerable in our community are always rising. As resources get tighter, competition for funds gets fiercer, and expectations for outcomes and “rigorous evaluation” rise.
The drive toward outcome-based evaluation is, overall, a very good thing. Because of the social and economic challenges we face in our communities today, nonprofits – as entities that are subsidized by the government (because they don’t pay taxes) and supported by a variety of charitable investments – should definitely be accountable for their use of public funds and the extent to which those funds serve the public welfare. Rigorous evaluation and data-based management are key to the effective utilization of resources by revealing both the strengths – and the weaknesses – of our services, programs, and organizations. Evaluation and performance-based management not only help us capitalize on what we do really well, but also help us identify when it’s time to let go (of programs or functions that don’t really work) or pursue a dynamic approach to change.
When outcome-based evaluation goes wrong is when we set (or are pressured into setting) outcomes and impacts that are beyond our reach along with “rigorous” approaches to measurement that are well beyond the capacity and resources of our organizations.
Pressure for unrealistic outcomes and evaluation approaches can come from multiple sources – top management who wants the organization to look more effective than it actually is, board members who think that nonprofits should function more like businesses/corporations, and funders who think that relatively small contributions – and ever tighter organizational budgets – should lead to a lot more than is actually possible.
Examples from my own experience include the following:
1) Pressure from the top leadership (staff and board) in organizations to “keep looking” for new sources of data that show a particular program model is more effective than any other model existing in their market, when their actual results raise as many questions about effectiveness as they answer.
2) Anxious pleas for help from nonprofit staff members who say their funders and board members are pressuring them to measure long-term outcomes (or systems-wide or community-based outcomes) when organizational resources are not sufficient to either offer intensive programs that can realistically lead to long-term measurable change or to invest the significant amount of personnel and financial resources to follow program “graduates” on a longitudinal basis.
Many of these pressures come from people who mean well (that is, they truly are interested in supporting and helping to develop more effective organizations) but who don’t truly understand what it actually takes to impact human behavior and change human beings and communities, particularly on a long-term basis.
Where do realistic outcomes and realistic approaches to evaluation come from? The standards for effectiveness and data-based management approaches that are most likely to actually help organizations become more effective in serving the human beings they serve? They aren’t determined by external stakeholders or those who don’t have practical experience with the population being served: they are developed, over time, by practitioners with real experience in consultation with these other stakeholders, and in dialogue with best practices and experts in their particular fields of endeavor.
So how can we shift this paradigm, so that nonprofits are, in fact, setting SMART objectives for their organizations (objectives that are not only specific and measurable but also relevant, achievable, and realistically time-bound) and that these targeted outcomes are accepted and supported by leadership and funders? Here are a few ideas:
· Develop a logic model that includes the resources your program/organization needs to be effective along with the outputs and outcomes that are realistic given your resources and the levels of need of your targeted population/community. Be a strong and informed advocate of your model (and with what you both do and do not do) with your board and funders.
· Develop an evaluation plan that follows these same principles. Ask for dollars to support evaluation activities in every request for funding you make, even if it’s a modest amount – it will accumulate over time.
· Think carefully about your board membership. A lot of emphasis is placed these days on recruiting board members with a focus on levels of income or access to prospective funding, and these individuals are definitely needed; but don’t forget to keep your board in balance by also recruiting members with real-life experience and expertise in your particular field of service.
· Take a look at your list of funders. Do some of them seem to systematically expect more from you than you are realistically able to deliver, year after year? If so, it may be time to switch the time and energy you devote to trying to keep them happy to developing new sources of earned income and cultivating new funding sources.
Interested in a deeper discussion of these topics? Come to The Mission Center L3C’s first Second Tuesday Evaluation Session, featuring 60 minutes of presentation and 90 minutes of facilitated peer learning and networking, on Tuesday, May 13, beginning at 8:30 a.m. An invitation will follow to those on the TMC mailing list, or indicate your interest by emailing me at leslie.scheuler@
Your realistic outcomes advocate,
Leslie Scheuler, PhD, is the newly appointed Director of Impact Evaluation and Practitioner in Residence at The Mission Center L3C.