After five very productive years at Tech Networks of Boston (TNB), I am now looking for my next professional challenge. I’m ready for a career shift! I’ve notified the leadership at TNB, so this is not a covert search.
If you know about any job opportunities at organizations that need someone with my skill set, I’d love to hear about them. In my next job, I’d like to focus on some or all of the following:
Weaving networks among nonprofit organizations in order to build collaboration, peer learning, and communities of practice.
Building the capacity of philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to achieve and document their desired outcomes.
Fostering equity, inclusion, social justice, and corporate social responsibility.
Aiding philanthropic and nonprofit organizations in seamlessly matching resources with needs.
Establishing best practices in the strategic use of information and communication technologies among mission-based organizations.
Facilitating candid dialogue and successful collaborations between grantmakers and grantees.
This is not actually a photo from the dialogue series. We refrained from taking photos, because we wanted to foster an atmosphere of candor and comfort as grantors and grantees engaged in conversation about a difficult topic. However, it is a favorite photo from another recent Tech Networks of Boston event.
Oh, my! It took Tech Networks of Networks almost two years to organize and implement a series of candid dialogues about data and evaluation for grantors and nonprofit grantees, and now it’s complete. The process was a collaboration in itself, with TSNE MissionWorks, and Essential Partners serving as co-hosts. An advisory group and planning group gave crucial input about the strategy and tactics for this event.
What you see here are a few notes that reflect my individual experience. In this article, I am not speaking on behalf of any organization or individual.
June 2017: Let’s get oriented. What is the heart of the matter for grantors and grantees?
September 2017: You know, we really need to address the imbalance of power in the grantor/grantee relationship.
January 2018: Ok, can we agree on some best practices how to address this as grantors and grantees? Why, yes. We can.
The plan is to make the recommendations that came out of the final dialogue publicly available online, to provide a starting point for a regional or even national conversation about data and evaluation.
Meanwhile, I’d like to offer my own recommendations. Mine are based on what I learned during the dialogue series, and also on untold numbers of public and private conversations on the topic.
Understanding that nonprofits perceive funders as having not just money but also much more power.
Asking nonprofits to define their goals, their desired outcomes, and their quantitative measures of success – rather than telling them what these should be.
Factoring in the nonprofit organization’s size, capacity, and budget – making sure that the demand for data and evaluation is commensurate.
Understanding the real cost in dollars to grantees who provide the data reporting and evaluation that you request. These dollar amounts might be for staff time, technology, training, an external consultant, or even for office supplies.
Providing financial support for any data or evaluation that the funder needs – especially if the nonprofit does not have an internal need for that data or evaluation. Items to support might include staff time, technology, training, or retaining an external consultant with the necessary skill set.
Putting an emphasis on listening.
Nonprofits can help by:
Engaging in a quantitative analysis of their operations and capacity, and sharing this information with funders.
Understanding that grant makers are motivated to see nonprofit grant recipients succeed.
Understanding that grant makers are often under pressure from donors and their boards to deliver a portfolio of outcomes.
Integrating the use of data and evaluation into most areas of operation – this means building skills in data and evaluation across the entire organization.
Gathering with other nonprofits that have similar desired outcomes and comparing notes on failures and best practices.
Fostering a data-friendly, continuous learning culture within nonprofit organizations.
Both groups can help by:
Engaging in self-scrutiny about how factors such as race and class affect how data is collected, categorized, analyzed, and reported.
Talking frankly about how power dynamics affect their relationships.
Engaging in ongoing dialogue that is facilitated by a third party who is experienced in creating a safe space.
Talking about and planning the evaluation process well before the grant begins.
Creating clear definitions of key terms pertaining to data and evaluation.
Making “I don’t know” an acceptable response to a question.
Measuring what you really value, rather than simply valuing what you can easily measure.
Working toward useful standards of measurement. Not all programs and outcomes are identical, but very few are entirely sui generis.
Sharing responsibility for building the relationship.
Speaking with each other on a regular basis.
Studying (and implementing) community-based participatory research methods.
And now, because I can insert a contact form here, I’m going to. Please feel free to let me know if you’re interested in being part of a regional or national conversation about how grantors and grantees can move forward and work constructively with data and evaluation.
Disclaimer: This illustration is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional data analyst.
My training, such as it is, is heavily skewed toward qualitative methods; at the same time, I have a lot of respect for quantitative analysis. However, my favorite form of research consists of staring off into space and letting ideas float into my head. Sometimes I validate my findings by engaging in conversations in which I talk louder and louder until everyone agrees that I’m right. It seems to work.
Lately, I’ve had a little time to stare off into space and let ideas float into my head; by this, I mean that I traveled to Austin, Texas for the Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15ntc) and had some down time on the plane. By the time I arrived in Austin, I had become convinced that “Data Analyst” would be this year’s standout job title in the field of nptech. At the conference, I was able to confirm this – by which I mean that I didn’t meet anyone there who talks more loudly than I do.
What are the take-ways? It depends on who you are:
For data analysts who are now working in the field of nonprofit technology: prepare to be appreciated.
For nonprofit executives: don’t kid yourselves. Brilliant data analysts who want to work in the nonprofit sector aren’t going to be attracted by job announcements that indicate that the successful candidate will also be responsible for network administration, hands-on tech support, social media, and web development.
For workforce development professionals: this is your cue. It’s time to put together a program for training computer science graduates to be nonprofit data geeks.
For donors, grantmakers, and other funders: if you want reports from nonprofits are based on reliable and valid methods of analysis, then you will need to underwrite data analysts at nonprofits. That means money for training, for salaries, and for appropriate technology.
If you don’t agree with my findings, please take a moment to share yours in the comments section.
Let’s say that you belong to a neighborhood group that wants to turn a vacant lot into a community garden. This is an unincorporated community group with no employees or funding. You need a lot of information and resources from different knowledge bases:
Are there already groups within a ten mile radius that have experience in creating community gardens?·
Are there established organizations that are looking for neighborhood-based partners?
Would it be advisable to incorporate as a nonprofit?
Would it be advisable to seek a fiscal sponsor, and how would we find one?
Is there an individual or organization within a five mile radius that would let us use their rototiller twice a year?
Is there a hardware store within a five mile radius that will donate wheelbarrows and seeds to community gardens?
Is there an urban entrepreneurship program in our town that will help us sell produce from the garden?
Is there an expert in biohazards who will help us certify that this vacant lot, which used to be an industrial site where toxic chemicals were processed, has been converted from brown space to green space?
Is there a squad of volunteers who will help us weed the garden once a week during the growing season?
Social Actions. For search and aggregation by issue of a range of opportunities to take effective action – including jobs, volunteering, petitions, micro-loans, and donations.
Great Nonprofits. For help in deciding which organizations are most likely to use resources well and to be good strategic partners.
Capaciteria. For help in deciding which consultants and service providers are most likely to help organizations achieve their goals.
InterEthos. For help in obtaining anonymized data sets from other nonprofit programs, in order to establish baselines and formulate appropriate goals.
Open Indicators Consortium. For WEAVE, the free data visualization platform , which will help nonprofits, philanthropies, and their many stakeholders understand community trends before creating action plans and setting goals.
Pledgebank. For gathering commitments to take an action or give a donation, on the condition that others make complementary commitments to the project.
Some tools are more local. Since I’m in Massachusetts, it’s easy for me to point to some great examples from the Bay State:
MetroBoston Data Common. For help in obtaining data from regional planners, in order to understand the needs of the communities to be served.
In the best of all possible worlds, we will need to mash-up this information – not just in terms of mapping where the resources are, and not just in terms of mapping where the unmet needs are, but in providing some sort of tool that will help individuals and organizations capture various kinds of information and put it to use in fulfilling a mission.
It would be highly desirable for your community garden group to be able to use a single login for all of the online tools that might supply information to answer your questions, so that you can put the pieces of the puzzle together and save the results of your searches. What I envision is that you would have something like an online project worksheet, in which you created a wish list of components needed for success in your initiative, and then filled in the blanks. This worksheet would be password protected, and you would be able to invite potential donors and partners to view it and to offer assets, expertise, capacities, or other resources to help make the vision a reality.
The power of bringing all of this together through an online suite of tools is especially clear in these tough economic times: the tools are out there, the impact of each would be multiplied by making available through a project worksheet, and it looks very likely that scarcity of funding can be overcome by clever use of currently under-used information and resources.
Regardless of whether you call it evaluation, impact assessment, outcomes management, performance measurement, or research – it’s really, really difficult to ascertain whether a mission-based organization is delivering the specific, positive, and sustainable change that it promises to its stakeholders. Many organizations do an excellent job at tracking outputs, but falter when it comes to managing outcomes. That’s in part because proving a causal relationship between what the nonprofit does and the specific goals that it promises to achieve is very costly in time, effort, expertise, and money.
But assuming that a mission-based organization is doing a rigorous evaluation, we still need to ask: what is done with the findings, once the analysis is complete?
What the aforementioned infographics from the “State of Evalution 2012” tell me is that both grantors and grantees typically say that the most important thing they can do with their outcome findings is to report them to their respective boards of directors. Considering the depth of the moral and legal responsibility that is vested in board members, this is a pretty decent priority. But it’s unclear to me what those boards actually do with the information. Do they use it to guide the policies and operations of their respective organizations? If so, does anything change for the better?
If you have an answer to the question of how boards use this information that is based on firsthand experience, then please feel to post a comment here.
Thanks to Bob Penna, I feel a lot better now. In yesterday’s training, he showed me and the CTK team just how far you can go by stripping away what is superfluous and focusing on what it really takes to use the best outcomes tools for job. Never mind about graduate level statistics! Managing outcomes may be very, very difficult because it requires major changes in organizational culture – let’s not kid ourselves about that. However, it’s not going to take years out of each nonprofit professional’s life to develop the skill set.
Here are some other insights and highlights of the day:
Mia Erichson, CTK’s brilliant new marketing manager, pointed out that at least one of the outcomes tools that Bob showed us could be easily mapped to a “marketing funnel” model. This opens possibilities for aligning a nonprofits programmatic strategy with its marcomm strategy.
The way to go is prospective outcomes tracking, with real time updates allowing for course correction. Purely retrospective outcomes assessment is not going to cut it.
There are several very strong outcomes tools, but they should be treated as we treated a software suite that comprises applications that are gems and applications that are junk. We need to use the best of breed to meet each need.
If we want to live in Bob Penna’s universe, we’re going to have to change our vocabulary. It’s not “outcomes measurement – it’s “outcomes management.” The terms “funder” and “grantmaker” are out – “investor” is in.
Even with these lessons learned, it’s not a Utopia out there waiting for nonprofits that become adept at outcomes management. Not only is it difficult to shift to an organizational culture that fosters it, but we have to face continuing questions about how exactly the funders (oops! I should have said “investors”) use the data that they demand from nonprofit organizations. (“Data” is of course a broad term, with connotations well beyond outcomes management. But it’s somewhat fashionable these days for them to take an interest in data about programmatic outcomes.)
During a break in Bob’s training, some of my CTK colleagues were discussing the likelihood that many nonprofit executives simply hate the concept of outcomes management. Who wants to spend resources on it, if it subtracts from resources available for programmatic activities? Who wants to risk finding out (or to risk having external stakeholders find out) that an organization’s programs are approximately as effective as doing nothing at all? Very few – thus the need to find new motivations, such as the power to review progress and make corrections as we go. I jokingly told my CTK colleagues, “the truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Perhaps that’s more than a joke.