Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where are we headed? (Part 2)

Last week in my blog I spent a little time on the background of the Accountability Wizard evaluation project we’ve begun and on three of the themes that emerged in a focus group we held earlier this spring.

I wanted to finish up the themes that will help give a frame work for a future survey tool and talk a little about what we’ve learned to date.

Theme 4: More Recognition By Donors Needed
Is there a measurable difference in donor attitude toward a nonprofit once they have met standards? This, of course, is the proverbial million-dollar question for the Council. What we heard indicates a potential split between individual donors and institutional grantmakers.
I have a feeling that not enough donors consider [meeting the Accountability Standards] an essential for giving money and that the donors who overtly ask you about it tend to be certain corporate or foundation donors rather than individual donors.
Since we see individual donors as a core constituency of our organization, is this a signal that we need to do a better job of connecting with donors and promoting our work? After all, the Kintera/Luth Nonprofit Trend Report in 2005 indicated that 65% of donors do online research before giving. Or is this indicative of what a Hope Consulting study found in that although donors say they believe in doing research before giving, few do? At this point it’s unclear what this means, but clearly there’s something there that we need to dig a bit deeper into.

Theme 5: Increased Confidence
Although focus group participants didn't identify a monetary bump after going through a review, they did say that participating in a review provided an increased sense of confidence.
I wouldn’t say we’ve changed much in the way that we operate. I think there’s, from the board on down, there’s a feeling of confidence that we’re doing the right thing.
This increased confidence was tied to knowing that they were keeping up with best practices. (One of the themes from last week's blog.) A side benefit was also improved communication between staff and the Board. For example, staff had a better grasp of how to help their Boards better understand and apply appropriate standards by which the Board would use to assess the organization.

Theme 6: Strengthening Infrastructure
All interviewed organizations shared the belief that going through the Accountability Wizard helped them to better understand their internal structures, policies, and processes.
[Going through the Accountability Wizard] really strengthens the infrastructure of the organizations and the stronger that gets the more productive and efficient that it is.
For example, some organizations reported that going through the Accountability Wizard has helped improve their internal structures for keeping, organizing and reporting data. Others reported how going through the Accountability Wizard led to streamlined internal reports. Organizations shared the strong belief that the better each were internally, the more it could direct its attention and energies towards its work and towards making a difference with those it served.

Theme 7: Catalyst For Change
The last theme that came up in the focus group was that the Accountability Wizard can serve as a catalyst for focusing an organization on aligning its operations towards best practices. This results in better policies, better and more consistent language used across policies, and better understanding of where we currently stand in terms of organizational best practices
And [the Accountability Wizard] is a nice tool because sometimes we tend to procrastinate about when we do things, about maybe tweaking a policy. So I always say, “Well the Charity Review is coming up folks, get this to the Board” and it gets to the Board so it’s great. I like it! It gets it done.
This theme is an interesting one since, in other words, the review process could be used as leverage to get things done.

Well, that wraps up the themes from the focus group. As we continue down this path of evaluation, we’ll keeping blogging about it, but I’d be interested in hearing what others are doing regarding evaluating their impact. Any suggestions for us? Any lessons learned the hard way or otherwise? Any reactions about what we’ve done so far?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where are we headed? (Part 1)

"If you don't know where you're headed, any direction will do."

My dad was fond of telling me this as I was growing up. His little riff on Lewis Carroll's quote was meant to get me to focus and pick a career path, but truthfully I thought it was a pretty good philosophy of life as I stumbled from one thing to the next through college and the next few years afterwards.

I've been thinking about my dad and his quote a lot lately as the Charities Review Council has started down the road of evaluating the impact of the Accountability Wizard. The more articles and blogs I read about evaluating nonprofit impact, the more I believe many nonprofits jump into evaluation without fully knowing what this will mean for the organization. Yes, there's something to be said for the boldness of just going for it, but as anyone who has a story of evaluation blues could probably tell you - if you don't know where you're headed, you might end up at the last place you wanted to arrive.

So as the Council approached this evaluation project, we started by getting a sense of what "direction" we were heading. We first got clear on the overall goal: to measure what long-term impact the Accountability Wizard and meeting the Accountability Standards has on a reviewed nonprofit. But in order to get the data to measure this, we have to ask the right questions.

To get to the right questions, we asked a few nonprofits that had been reviewed to attend a focus group facilitated by Wilder Research. (By the way, Wilder Research offers evaluation workshops. Check out their website for upcoming opportunities.) From this focus group 7 themes arose that helped give a frame work from which we'll be able to design a survey tool. I wanted to touch on just a few of the themes in this blog and will cover the rest of them in the next blog post.

Theme 1: Valuing Accountability
Not surprisingly, one thing that came up in the focus group was a shared commitment to accountability. This quote sums up what most everyone said in one way or another:
"We care a lot about being accountable and we’re willing to be measured on it. We want to be measured on it, we want people to know that that’s a value that we hold and we are happy to do what we need to do to achieve that accountability."
According to focus group participants, completing the Accountability Wizard strengthened the belief that as an organization they were accountable. An interesting question that the evaluation might help us better understand is if nonprofits who go through a review typically already see themselves as accountable, does the review process really have a measurable impact in this perception?

Theme 2: Staying On Top Of Best Practices
Nonprofits are expected to do a lot of things on a small budget, so keeping up on current best practices can be challenging. The Accountability Wizard review is one way focus group participants stayed on top of trends.
"I count on you folks [Charities Review Council] to keep us current with what’s new out there and I know our leadership goes out picking up things from different organizations and our own professional societies help with that. But, particularly your group really focuses on what’s new and what needs to be. ...Being a small agency we can’t always go out to all of the seminars so that’s just a wonderful resource."
Not only did we hear that the review process helped keep them informed of best practices, but that it also helped implement those practices in the organization, which in the interest of measuring an impact or change could lead to some interesting findings. Namely, were there common practices that nonprofits tended to change because of the review process?

Theme 3: Significance of the "Meets Standards" Seal
One of the best parts of my job is when I get to tell a nonprofit that they meet all standards. This is usually followed up by, "So does this mean we can use the seal?" Uniformly, focus group participants use the "Meets Standards" seal as a way of communicating their accomplishment. As one person said,
"I mean, we just want to make sure that at every opportunity people know that we meet all the standards."
Foreshadowing some of the themes in the next blog, the question arises – is there any measurable difference in donor attitude toward the nonprofit once they have met standards? This is an important piece of information that we want to learn more about.

To be continued next week...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Outcomes: Our Path to Finding the Time & Making the Effort

Fifteen years ago, okay 20 years ago, when I was a nonprofit newbie, the local United Way hosted a workshop on Outcomes/Impact. There was such buzz and interest in that workshop. Imagine! How awesome it would be to really understand the impact that your organization makes, the change you’re making in the world.

Fifteen years later, as I continue my career here at the Charities Review Council, the topic of outcomes takes on a bit more urgency and weariness. Two of our recent Annual Forum speakers, Paul Light and Ken Berger, confirmed this urgency in their speeches: WE MUST MEASURE—for the good of the nonprofit sector, all of us must measure.

Honestly, I don’t think any of us would argue that measuring our impact isn’t a worthwhile endeavor. Clearly though, (I mean it is 20 years later) the enthusiasm is tempered by the struggle to make it happen. The cognitive dissonance I have about it reads something like:

Yay, let’s measure impact, that would be so cool we could really show our constituents and funders how we’re making change.
Yeah, right, I think, when are we supposed to find the time to go deeper into our evaluation? The Council is a teeny tiny organization, and there’s always more work to do. How can we really find the right time to dig into impact?

In late 2009, when the Council board of directors approved our revised Accountability Standards, particularly Impact on the Community, we set a new expectation—that all of our reviewed charities have a conversation and assess their impact. Proudly, one of the many things I like about working at the Council is that we try to model what we expect of other charities. We’ve spent the last few months discussing how we meet our own new standards, including the impact on the community.

We’ve let go of our concerns—no more we’re teeny tiny, there isn’t time, we don’t have the funds, we’re unique- a capacity builder. We are finding the time and making the effort. Thankfully, the stars seemed to align: a board member who has his PhD in evaluation, new standards, a pro bono partner ready to help, staff energized and ready to take it on, and a clear project proposal to jump start funding.

Over the next few months, in our blogs and in our e-newsletters, we’re going to talk about the outcome evaluation path. Advocates for transparency, we’d like to have a conversation about it along the away. I mean, really, what if our assumptions about our impact are way off? What should we be looking at from the donor perspective, from the nonprofit perspective? Let us know if you agree with what we’re looking at, or if you have a point to make about our impact.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Accountability Matters

It's been three months since the new Accountability Wizard was launched and the response has been remarkable. Within the first two days, over a dozen nonprofits got started with a review and to date more than 150 nonprofits have created an account in the Accountability Wizard and begun the process.

Several nonprofits have already met all of the new Accountability Standards! The first was Students Today Leaders Forever, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit whose missions is to reveal leadership through service relationships and action. STLF blazed through the Accountability Wizard in less than a month and have posted a blog about it.

While the fact that so many nonprofits are voluntarily choosing to go through a review is exciting, to me it begs a question. Why do nonprofits put themselves through this?

Not to appear self-serving, but one factor clearly is the shifting nonprofit environment towards more accountability and transparency. Simply put, doing good just isn't good enough. Donors (both individual and institutional) expect more proof regarding organizational impact and prudent stewardship of resources. This shift, of course, is happening while philanthropic dollars are declining. (The Urban Institute recently released a study that indicated this trend was beginning as early as 2007 before the bottom fell out of the economy.)

Although accountability and transparency have always been important to the nonprofit sector, now it matters even more. This trend, I believe, is reflected not only in the number of nonprofits that have started the new Accountability Wizard, but also in the burgeoning number of charity watchdog websites and the upcoming changes to the way Charity Navigator rates nonprofits, just to name two examples.

I applaud those nonprofits that have voluntarily stepped up to the plate and started the new Accountability Wizard. In this "new normal" that everyone has been talking about, demonstrating accountability is vital and an Accountability Wizard review is certainly one way to do this.

If you are interested in learning more about the Accountability Wizard, you can sign up for a free introductory webinar on the Charities Review Council website.