Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

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Anyone who believes that people who work in the nonprofit sector are ipso facto morally superior to the rest of us might want to consider the story of The New York Blood Center and the 60 or so chimpanzees that it abandoned last year in Liberia.

The NYBC, as it’s known, is a nonprofit that generated nearly $400 million in revenues last year and had about $480 million in assets, according to Guidestar. It says it can no longer afford to feed the chimpanzees.

By its own account, the NYBC conducted biomedical research on hundreds of chimps between 1974 and 2004, in a partnership with the Liberian ministry of health. Its researchers studied the hepatitis virus, which can threaten the safety of donated blood, at a facility called Vilab II. When the animal testing stopped, the NYBC paid for the feeding of the remaining chimps until March 2015 when the nonprofit “concluded it could no longer divert funds from its important lifesaving mission here at home.”

The chimps were left to fend for themselves on a half dozen small islands, without food or fresh water, where they would have died were it not for the intervention of animal-welfare advocates led by the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS has kept the chimps alive, with the help of  a crowdfunding campaign at GoFundMe.

Earlier today [Sept. 27), HSUS held a news conference in Washington to call attention to the situation and to say that Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and UN ambassador, had joined the campaign on behalf of the chimps. Richardson made a $35,000 donation to support the chimps through his nonprofit, the Richardson Center for Public Engagement, and he called on NYBC and its donors to take responsibility for their welfare. 

Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of HSUS, said: “For a private charity with a budget in the hundreds of millions, and assets of $400 million, this is unacceptable conduct,” he said.  “Why is it okay to dump this responsibility on someone else. Because we care more?” Continue reading

f763458a-1fcb-40dc-94ad-fc20e91dbf62_philnext_header_logo_pnA peculiar challenge facing anyone who produces journalism about the nonprofit sector is the sector’s incredible diversity. Setting aside their legal status as tax-exempt organizations, Harvard, Greenpeace, CARE, your local food pantry and a community orchestra have nothing in common—except the need to raise money. (Well, not Harvard, but that’s another story.)

So it should not have come as a surprise to me that when The Chronicle of Philanthropy convened a day-long conference called Philanthropy Next last week in Washington, D.C., most of the conversation wound up being about fundraising.

The Chronicle, as most readers of this blog probably know, is the closest thing to a newspaper of record in the world of philanthropy. (Disclosure: I’ve contributed stories to the Chronicle, and I’m friendly with the editors.) This was its first conference.

The tagline was: Measuring Impact, Inspiring Donors. I came hoping to learn about measuring impact, but the nonprofit executives in the room seemed more interested in inspiring donors. Again, that shouldn’t have been surprising; many, perhaps most, were development executives.

Indeed, by the time we had digested lunch, the group had spent an hour or so digging deep into a critique of fundraising appeals; there was talk of audience segmentation, brand congruence, whether direct mail should be kept to a single page, even the need to get familiar with virtual reality as a “leapfrog to empathy connection,” whatever that means.

A cynic might conclude that the only reason why nonprofits want to “measure impact” is to “inspire donors.”

That’s not so. An increasing number of nonprofits track their impact because they want to improve their performance. Dozens have embarked on systematic efforts to develop feedback loops, listening carefully to the people they serve, and then using what they learn to become more effective.

Youth Villages, one of the nonprofits showcased at the conference, is a vivid example of a organization shaped by its learning. Youth Villages, which serves emotionally troubled kids and their families, got started in 1986 with the merger of two residential treatment centers in Memphis. It evaluated itself early on, with disappointing results. “Our mission is to help children and families live successfully,” said Richard Shaw, Youth Villages’ chief development officer. “We weren’t achieving our mission.”

Listen, learn, adapt

So Youth Villages shifted gears. It could see that residential treatment wasn’t working for many troubled kids. Instead, the organization learned that providing intensive services to kids and their families–while keeping those kids at home–was “twice as effective as traditional programs and much less costly,” as Drew Lindsay reported last year in the Chronicle [paywall].

Today, Youth Villages provides a variety of programs, depending on the needs of clients. They include residential treatment, foster care and adoption — the traditional approaches that some kids still need–as well as social services for families at home, the program that has brought national attention to Youth Villages.

And, as it turned out, Youth Villages’ track record led to a fundraising bonanza. The organization attracted the attention of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which, with other funders, poured more than $90 million into Youth Villages to support its expansion into more than 20 states.

Interestingly, Shaw said, when Youth Villages began measuring its impact, it did so using volunteers who called kids and their families after discharge to see how they were doing. That puts a lie to the notion that evaluation is too expensive or difficult to do. “We started small,” Shaw recalled. “We were hand to mouth. We did it without a grant.”

Youth Villages remains committed to rigorous measures of impact. It employs the equivalent of 18 full-time people who do evaluation. You can find detailed studies all over its website if you like. You can also find reports on simple outcomes that anyone can understand. “We track every young person that leaves our program at six, 12 and 24 months, post-discharge,” Shaw said. Its latest program report says that 82 percent of children are “living successfully” two years after leaving the program. Impressive.

Others at Philanthropy Next offer intriguing tidbits about measuring impact:

  • Patty Stonesifer, the former chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who now leads DC-based nonprofit Martha’s Table, described a new program called Joyful Food Markets, which offer fresh fruits and vegetables to elementary school students and their families in Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. Stonesifer said an evaluation is underway and the initial results are promising. “Food insecurity is going down,” she said. “Healthy eating is going up.” I’ll be interested to hear more about how Martha’s Table defines and measures food insecurity and healthy eating when the final results come in,
  • Kate Wilson, director of Chesapeake Bay Foundation, talked about the Brock Environmental Center, a 10,500-sq.-ft. building in Virginia Beach, Va., that produces more energy than it uses. Its montly utility bill: $17.19, which is what it costs to stay connected to the electricity grid. “It’s proof of the impact of conservation  and renewable energy,” Wilson said. The Chesapeake Foundation, as it happens, has a simple mission — Save the Bay — and a clear-cut way of measuring its progress, which makes it a standout among environmental groups, though this didn’t come up at the conference, unfortunately.
  • Alexandre Mars, the founder and CEO of the Epic Foundation, described his startup’s effort to identify outstanding nonprofits that help children and youth. The New York-based foundation has a staff of eight people devoted to evaluating nonprofits, which should spur higher performance among those that want access to its donors.

That was most of what was said about measuring impact. I had looked forward to hearing Tiffany Cooper Gueye, the CEO of BELL, a Boston-based group known for its commitment to continuous improvement, but she was asked to talk about the role of storytelling in fundraising.

This isn’t meant as a critique of the people at the Chronicle. They know their audience. It may well be that fundraising is the only topic likely to interest a few hundred assorted nonprofit execs at a conference, or the thousands more who read newspapers, magazines or websites about the social sector. And, of course, without fundraising, there would be neither programs nor impact.

But I worry that events like Philanthropy NEXT reflect the fact that people in charge of nonprofits spend too much time thinking about donors and not enough time thinking about how their are serving their purpose. I certainly hope that I’m wrong about that.

feedbackListen to the customer.

Businesses do it, albeit imperfectly.

So do nonprofits.

But the question for nonprofits is, who’s the customer? Most nonprofits listen to their donors. Those that raise money from individuals test their fundraising messages, and act on what they learn. Those that rely on foundations pay heed to what major philanthropies have to say.

But the practice of listening carefully to those who nonprofits aim to serve–their clients, constituents or beneficiaries–is less common.

This is a missed opportunity for nonprofits that want to improve their performance.

Consider, as an example, the story of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a New York-based nonprofit that helps men and women coming out of jail or prison enter the workforce. CEO, as it’s known, does its job well by most accounts, including a pair of thorough evaluations conducted by MDRC, a foundation-funded research organization. Funded mostly by governments and foundations, CEO has an annual budget of about $29 million this year; during the past decade, CEO says it has helped about 25,000 ex-offenders find and keep jobs.

But CEO wanted to do better. So, for the past couple of years, it has been learning how to ask the right questions of those formerly incarcerated people, how to get answers that are reliable and actionable, and how to respond in ways that improve its programs.
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All+Three+Levels+of+ConcernIf, like me, you want to donate to the very best nonprofits–those that do the most good, at the lowest cost–Charity Navigator, the US’s most popular source of charity ratings, offers little help. Charity Navigator gives four stars, its top score, to 2,889 of the 7,971 charities that it evaluates. Nearly 4,000 more charities are awarded three stars. Like the children of Lake Wobegon, most charities in the world of Charity Navigator are above average.

But not all of them. Some 371 charities carry what are called CN Advisories, which are Charity Navigator’s efforts to protect donors from charity scams and alleged misconduct. Last week, Charity Navigator unveiled a new version of its advisory system that includes color-coded alerts that classify the level of concern about charities as low, moderate or high. They replaced a system with a confusing mix of advisories and a “watchlist.”

Charities and donors “wanted more clarity around the system,” says Katie Rusnock, who led the revamp for Charity Navigator. The new advisory system is designed to be “as objective as possible”  as well as “easily accessible and timely and relevant,” she told me, while giving nonprofits the opportunity to reply to allegations lodged against them and to get advisories removed by taking corrective action. The Charity Navigator website was visited more than seven million times last year.

The new advisory system brings Charity Navigator a bit closer to fulfilling its bold and important missionto guide intelligent giving [and thus] advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace. But, like the rest of the site, the advisory system is of limited use. Continue reading

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To raise awareness of the global water crisis, Mina Guli ran the equivalent of 40 marathons on seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks earlier this year.

As a marathon runner, I salute her.

As a reporter who writes about philanthropy, I’m less impressed.

A “global leader, athlete, entrepreneur and adventurer” — her words, not mine –Guli is the founder and CEO of Thirst, a charity registered in Hong Kong that aims to teach young people, mostly in China, “to become responsible water citizens, managing their own water use and the use of those around them.”

Thirst has issues. What, for starters, does it mean to be a “responsible water citizen”? For Thirst, it appears to mean making small changes to conserve water: Drinking tea instead of coffee, eating chicken instead of beef, buying fewer T-shirts and taking shorter showers. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to know if Thirst’s activities change behavior. More important, it’s unlikely that water conservation on a personal or household level will do much about water scarcity. (It could even make things worse, as I’ll explain.) As it that weren’t enough, Thirst won’t say where its money comes from, or how much it spends, or even who paid for Guli’s adventures on seven continents and produced a series of beautiful videos documenting her feat.

Thirst would not be worth our attention were it not an initiative of the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. This organization consists of people under 40 selected by the World Economic Forum, the group that organizes the annual winter gathering of some of the world’s most powerful political leaders, CEOs and philanthropists at Davos, a Swiss ski resort. These young global leaders are “bold, brave, action-oriented and entrepreneurial” and committed to “serving society at large,” we’re told.

They are also smart enough to think critically about NGOs and their impact. But the WEF’s alignment with Thirst–see, for example, this posting on the World Economic Forum website by a WEF staffer–is an unwelcome reminder that for too many people, when it comes to philanthropy, good intentions are good enough. Even setting aside the issue of transparency, which is no small matter, the more important question that must be asked of Thirst, and of any NGO that aspires to tackle a big global issue, is a simple one: Where is the evidence that its work will bring about meaningful and lasting change? Continue reading

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It’s easy for most of us to take the simplest things–like flushing a toilet–for granted. Yet almost 2.4 billion people lack access to modern sanitation, and nearly 1 billion practice open defecation, according to the World Health Organization. The problem is worst in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, particularly India.

What’s to be done?

That’s hard to know, says Seeking Sanitation Success, an excellent report commissioned by Catholic Relief Services:

Very little information on sustained solutions is available, making funders and practitioners in the sector vulnerable to repeating mistakes or investing in unproven approaches.

The report also found:

There has been no NGO-led sanitation approach that leads to success at scale (depending on the definition).

The report was written by Susan Davis, who is the founder of Improve International, a small NGO aimed at improving the quality and sustainability of water and sanitation projects in poor countries. By phone, she  explains that most progress in delivering modern sanitation has been led by governments, and not NGOs.

That doesn’t mean that NGOs can’t play a constructive role, she says. They can advocate for government action, they can help spur behavior change around sanitation (which is harder to do than you might think) and, importantly, they can help figure out which of the many approaches to sanitation work best.

This is an all-too-familiar story in global development. We don’t know enough about what works. Programs are under-studied. Results are under-reported, if they are reported at all. Successes are trumpeted. Failures, not so much. Followup is rare. Continue reading

ijSummer heat settled over Washington, D.C., last week, and so it is time for me to slow down, literally and figuratively.

One of my journalistic heroes is Carol Loomis the outstanding financial journalist and a  former colleague at FORTUNE magazine. Carol, who worked at FORTUNE for 60 years, took summers off in her later years and while I’m not going quite that far, I’m going to work a lot less this month and next. From training nearly two dozen marathons during many Washington summers, I’ve learned that pacing is important. Rest days, too.

I started this blog in March 2015, and promised myself I’d write at least one post a week. I’ve kept up that pace since then, writing 81 posts and, as best as I can estimate, nearly 100,000 words (more than the average book). That discipline forced me to seek out new stories each week and expose myself to new people, ideas and institutions. It’s been a great way to teach myself as much as I can about philanthropy, in a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, the weekly rhythm led me to post stories that could have been reported more deeply or written more carefully. There’s a quantity/quality tradeoff in reporting that has been part of my self since I began writing for newspapers, sometimes churning out two or three stories a day, more than 40 years ago.

I now plan to post with less regularity to this blog for the rest of the summer, and perhaps beyond. My inclination is to write fewer stories that aim for greater depth. But as a believer in the importance of feedback loops, I’d love to know what you, the readers of this blog, think. How can I make myself more useful? Feel free to comment or email me at marc.gunther at Gmail.

Remember that my purpose here is to contribute, in whatever way I can, to a more effective nonprofit sector. As I sometimes say–we all know there are thousands upon thousands of nonprofits in the world, some of them wonderful, some of them mediocre and many in the middle. Wouldn’t be it great to know which is which?