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.

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