About fifteen to twenty years ago or so, the edict went out across the country.
Academic researchers, nonprofit consulting firms, think tanks and other esteemed institutes proclaimed it was high time for nonprofits to identify, measure and produce evidence about the outcomes they were achieving.
The mantra: “show us your measurable outcomes” was echoed across the funding community. A robust industry of nonprofit consulting firms focused on outcome evaluation was born. Talented researchers and assessment consultants trekked out across the country to teach nonprofit leaders about the “Theory of Change.”
A lot of good came from this movement.
Nonprofit leadership teams sharpened their approach to services, adopted some stronger business practices and embraced new lingo about the return on investments donors could count on. It became normal for conversations in board rooms to shift from sharing stories of good work to strategies for understanding the results of good work. A well-executed logic model became the hallmark of great grant proposal.
However, along the way a lot of common sense was lost. I recall two stories that amplify my point.
The first occurred at a convening of nonprofit leaders, funders and city experts in the central part of New Hampshire. At this meeting several prominent community leaders armed with statistics about hunger, homelessness, drug abuse and poverty rates asserted that regrettably, none of the work of social service nonprofits in this region over the past decades had moved the needle in addressing these issues.
Statistics proved this diagnosis. Nonprofits had not cured hunger, violence or poverty. It was time to invest in “big solutions” by those equipped to show results.
I understood the desire to invest in big ideas and big solutions. But I had to wonder, did we no longer value the significant number of children who would be going to sleep that night (or every night for decades) with a full tummy and in a safe home due to the efforts of the Food Bank, The Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, Families in Transition and other hard working nonprofits?
Are we moving to an era where we might cease to fund a program of an organization such as Child and Family Services that helps a teenage parent protect her infant from a boyfriend who shook the baby in frustration because the program wasn’t “curing” violent offenders?
Did the statistics include the hundreds of stories of children who every year are protected from violence due to the work of CASA volunteers? Or what about the hundreds of children each day for 50 years who rely on services from Easter Seals?
I know that is not the intent of the community leaders, but I do believe we need to advocate for the value and support of real time impact as well as future big picture impact, both matter.
My other story is about billionaire and philanthropist Warren Buffet.
A few years ago Mr. Buffet was noted to have given a substantial donation to a homeless shelter in Seattle. In an interview about his giving habits the insightful interviewer (obviously trained in the logic model) asked Mr. Buffet what went into his decision to give so much money to that particular shelter.
“What results was this shelter achieving that caused you to realize they were worth such a large donation?” asked the interviewer.
“ I walked in. I saw the good they were doing. So I gave,” responded Buffet.
It’s easy for researchers to study data that exists about things we can measure. But it’s near impossible to measure unseen changes in family dynamics, prevented violence and hunger avoided.
It’s great to invest in results. It’s also great to keep eyes wide open so that we can see and support real time results, much of which will never be measurable.
I know it’s politically correct these days to say, “I rarely watch television.” But I can’t say that, just the way I can’t deny my passion for Dunkin’s iced coffee, but that’s a story for another day.
One television series that has become a favorite of mine is Madame Secretary. Who wouldn’t want to watch a series about a dynamic woman, serving as the US Secretary of State and masterfully leading our country through one harrowing crisis after another crisis?
During one episode a pending world catastrophe caused Madame Secretary to delegate a commitment to deliver the commencement speech at a New England College to her young speech writer. He reacted with dismay and a trace of panic, knowing the graduates and entire audience of dignitaries and parents would be crushed to see him at the podium instead of the Secretary of State.
Without blinking, the Secretary dismissed his anxiety saying; “I know you will be spectacular.”
And he was.
At the graduation, the young speechwriter apologized for the Secretary’s absence, noting that the graduates would probably never see him again nor would they recall his name, but hopefully they would remember the message behind his remarks.
Here is how he began:
“This is the first moment of my adult life that I have stood in the spotlight, and most likely the last, because I am one of those people who work in the dark. In this world of relentless self-promotion we have been raised to think the limelight is the only thing worth seeking, but its not.
Achievement is often anonymous, some of the greatest things have been done by people you have never heard of, quietly dedicating their lives to improve your own.”
He may have well been describing the millions of nonprofit workers who work invisibly to build strength in our communities and address the toughest issues facing our nation; poverty, inequality, racism, violence, substance abuse and more – without ever being recognized.
Very few nonprofit professionals choose their profession because of a desire for power, fame and fortune. And that is fine; glory isn’t what nonprofit leaders are seeking.
But the fact that the sector’s pivotal role in society continues to go unrecognized and undervalued by the majority of Americans is not fine.
For centuries nonprofit leaders have been too comfortable allowing their achievements to remain in the shadows. We have embraced the practice of prolifically showering credit and appreciation for our ability to achieve on our donors, business sponsors and funders.
I believe that in many cases, the nonprofit model sets nonprofit organizations up to take advice from boards, committees, stakeholders, funders, business partners and the community. And nonprofits do, often ad nausea and often delaying progress, while perpetuating the myth that we don’t quite know what we are doing.
I am not suggesting that nonprofits should go it alone, or be so arrogant as to think they ‘know it all’. Nor am I suggesting that we stop seeking input on critical issues from informed board members, community partners and experts.
I am suggesting that nonprofit leaders adopt a confidence about the impact of their work and speak with certainty about their essential role in communities and look for ways to assume a leadership role in their region.
It’s time to recognize donors and foundation partners for their commitment to the cause, for their strategic investment in results, and for their understanding of the capital needed for risk taking and long term investment in nonprofit ventures that are producing results.
How refreshing it would be to sit at a nonprofit event and, instead of listening to a lot of “gushing” over donors and sponsors, hear specifics about the leverage of their investments, data reflecting what deeper investment from new partners will accomplish and a vision for the end goal.
I think the funders and sponsors would find it refreshing too.
I would welcome your input on strategies for shifting the culture of “begging and thanking” that has permeated the nonprofit modus operando for centuries.
I am launching this blog today with the hopes of creating a dialogue with colleagues who work and volunteer within the nonprofit sector about issues, people and practices that deserve our attention.
I can’t say I will offer answers to the issues I write about, nor can I promise to be poetic. But, I will strive to write about things that matter, people who inspire and topics we have dodged in the sector for decades, typically out of fear of rocking the funding boat, urban myths and untested assumptions.
Some favorite subjects I look forward to tackling include; the nonprofit board model we love to hate, the fundraising fairytales we need to re-think and our sectors quiet giants, people who do so much good with so little fanfare.
Over a 30-year career in the nonprofit sector I have had the privilege of leading four organizations, the last being The NH Center for Nonprofits. Each experience deepened my respect for the hundreds of executive directors, board trustees, volunteers and staff members that devote their energies to charitable work.
That said, never a week went by when I didn’t ask myself; does it have to be this hard?
The challenges inherent in a construct that calls for a revolving group of community members, often with no expertise in the field, being charged with overseeing a paid CEO, setting strategy and assuming the ultimate responsibility for sustainable organizations in a highly competitive and volatile environment is food for great fodder. Don’t you think?
I hope you enjoy this journey with me. – Mary Ellen