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...

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