A 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.