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.
The inspiration for this comes from many conversations with many people, but I’d especially like to credit Susan Labandibar, Julia Gittleman, and Laura Beals for pointing out, in their different ways, that one of the most pressing real-life challenges in nonprofit technology today is finding people who can bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team (on one hand) and the information systems team (on the other hand) at a nonprofit organization.
Of those graduates, what percentage have strong skills in database design, database development, database management, or data analysis?
Of those who have strong data skills, what percentage would be eager to use their geek skills for good, if they were offered an attractive career ladder?
That’s our applicant pool for the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology. (Or MINT, if you prefer.)
Now, let’s figure out the absolute minimum of additional knowledge that these computer science graduates would need in order to be the kind of data analysts who could bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team and the information systems team at a nonprofit:
Social research methods
Organizational cultures of nonprofits
Organizational cultures of philanthropic foundations
That’s our basic curriculum.
If we want to expand the curriculum beyond the basics, we can add these elective subjects:
All of these electives would pave the way for other degree programs, in which they would also be extremely useful:
Bachelor of Nonprofit Systems Engineering
Bachelor of Nonprofit Web Development
Bachelor of Nonprofit Help Desk Support
Bachelor of Nonprofit Hands On Tech Support
Bachelor of Nonprofit Social Media
I already have my eye on some great local colleagues who could be the faculty for the Bachelor of Nonprofit Data program. In addition to Susan, Julia, and Laura, I’d want to recruit these folks:
Please note that three members of the TNB team top the list of potential faculty members. Why? Because I work there, and because TNB has set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal of developing the careers of 1,000 technology professionals. This undertaking would be very congruent with its vision!
However, setting up the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology must be a collaborative effort. It will take a strong network of colleagues and friends to make this happen.
Do you think that this is needed? Do you think my plan needs a lot of work? Do you have any ideas or resources that you’d like to suggest? Please feel free to use the comments section here to share your thoughts.
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.
No pilot testing has been done to ensure that the choices offered are both exhaustive and mutually exclusive.
The list could go on, but I’ll leave it at that. Although most of my training is in qualitativesocial research, I have taken undergraduate and graduate level courses on quantitative research, and the points I made about what’s wrong with my survey are what I could pull out of memory without consulting a standard text on statistics.
In other words, when it comes to quantitative analysis, I know just enough to be dangerous.
Meanwhile, I worry about nonprofit organizations that are under pressure to collect, analyze, and report data on the outcomes of their programs. There are a lot of fantastic executive directors, program managers, and database administrators out there – but it’s very rare for a nonprofit professional who falls into any of those three categories to also have solid skills in quantitative analysis and social research methods. Nevertheless, I know of plenty of nonprofit organizations where programmatic outcomes measurement is done by an executive director, program manager, or database administrator whose skill set is very different from what the task demands. In many cases, even if they come up with a report, the nonprofit staff members may not even be aware that what have done is presented a lot of data, without actually showing that there is any causal relationship between the organization’s activities and the social good that they are in business to deliver.
Let’s not be too hasty in deprecating the efforts of these nonprofit professionals. They are under a lot of pressure, especially from grantmaking foundations, to report on programmatic outcomes. In many cases, they do the best they can to respond, even if they have neither the internal capacity to meet the task nor the money to hire a professional evaluator.
By the way, I was delighted to attend gathering this fall, in which I heard a highly-regarded philanthropic professional ask a room full of foundation officers, “are you requiring $50,000 worth of outcomes measurement for a $10,000 grant?” It’s not the only question we need to ask, but it’s an extremely cogent one!
I’d love to see nonprofit professionals, philanthropists, and experts in quantitative analysis work together to address this challenge.
We should also be learning lessons from the online tools that have already been developed to match skilled individuals with nonprofit professionals who need help and advice from experts. Examples of such tools include the “Research Matchmaker,” and NPO Connect.
We can do better. It’s going to take time, effort, money, creativity, and collaboration – but we can do better.