Tag Archives: mission

Every nonprofit needs a theory of change for its technology. . .and for its evaluation process

if then

I’ve spent a lot of my professional life (thus far) thinking about the missions of nonprofit organizations, and about information/communication technologies for nonprofits.

In the past few years, it’s become fashionable to talk about the importance of a “theory of change” for nonprofits.  This is merely a way of underlining the importance of making an explicit statement about the causal relationship between what a nonprofit organization does and the impact that it has promised to deliver.  I applaud this!  It’s crucial to say, “if we take all of the following resources, and do all of the following actions, then we will get all of the following results.”  An organization that lacks the capacity to marshal those resources and take those actions needs to reconsider, because it is on track to fail. If its capacity is not aligned with its commitment, it should acquire the resources or change its commitment to results.  Of course, it some cases, it will merely need to revise its theory of change.  In any case, it will have to work backward from its mission, and understand how each component contributes to achieving it.

This kind of thinking has lead to a lot of conversations (and a lot of anxiety) in the nonprofit sector about performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, and impact assessment.

I’d love to have some of this conversation focus on the information/communication technologies that nonprofit organizations are using.  In other word, it’s time to be explicit about a theory of change that explains in detail how every component of the technology an organization uses contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver a specific kind of social, cultural, or environmental impact.

Likewise, I’d love to have the conversation address the ways in which the efforts of a nonprofit organization’s performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, or impact assessment team contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver the kind of impact that it promised its stakeholders.

 

 

TNB Labs has launched, and its first priority is data services for nonprofits!

tnb labs logo july 2016

 

Greg Palmer and I are very pleased to announce the launch of TNB Labs, a company dedicated to providing nonprofit organizations with high quality data services and program management.  TNB Labs works with organizations to audit and assess data management methodology, develop and implement data standards, and provide structural oversight through data governance to organizations of all sizes.

Through our partnership with Tech Networks of Boston, we have had a unique opportunity to listen to hundreds of stakeholders at TNB’s Roundtables uncover a need to elevate the role of data in nonprofit organizations.  TNB Labs is focused on improving the capacity of nonprofit organizations at every stage of the outcome management process.

The immediate priorities of TNB Labs are:

1) Providing Master Data Management (MDM) services to nonprofit organizations in support of their missions, focusing on data governance, data quality, data modeling, data visualizations, and program evaluation.

2) Providing workforce program management for Desktop Support Technicians (DST), Data Support Analysts (DSA), and Data Analytics/Data Evaluation entry level professionals.

3) Managing the TNB Roundtable series, which is now jointly owned by Tech Networks of Boston and TNB Labs.

TNB Labs is led by Greg Palmer (chief executive officer), and Deborah Elizabeth Finn (chief strategic officer).  The other co-founders are Bob Master (former CEO of Commonwealth Care Alliance) and Susan Labandibar (founder of Tech Networks of Boston).

TNB Labs is here to solve your problems.  Please contact us with any questions and comments you have about TNB Labs, or to learn more about data management or program management services that might be helpful to your organization.

Best regards from Deborah and Greg

Greg Palmer
gpalmer@tnblabs.org
508.861.4535

Deborah Elizabeth Finn
definn@tnblabs.org
617.504.8188

TNB Labs, LLC
PO Box 2073
Framingham, MA 01703
www.tnblabs.org

 

 

“Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing”

don't tell

 

Back in the 20th century, when I first started working in Massachusetts in the field of nonprofit technology, it seemed to me that the unofficial motto of every nonprofit was “Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing, because if you do, they’ll know what we’re doing.”

I wish I could tell you the story of my first experience with this tacit rule, but the people involved are still living, and they would never want me to mention their names or give anyone any information about the programs that they ran.  So please use your imagination.  All I can say is that all of the relevant facts about this organization’s programs are freely available to today on this organization’s web site, for anyone who cares to look it up. As far as I know, providing the names and phone numbers of the people directing the sites at which the programs are offered has not led to any catastrophes.

We’ve come a long way in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector, thanks to leadership from folks at organizations such as the Boston Foundation, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, and the Caring Force at the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers.  They have done some hard work in fostering collaboration, and with collaboration comes more freely shared information about what each nonprofit is doing.  (In my opinion, sometimes information sharing is the cause, and sometimes it’s the effect.)

I’m much obliged to people who have taught me a lot about the importance of nonprofit collaboration, such as Tom McLaughlin (who does a great deal of hands-on work to make it happen), Heather MacIndoe (who is doing academic research on the interplay of nonprofit collaboration and competition in the Boston area), and Susan Labandibar (who is pioneering some important new ideas about how nonprofit technology assistance providers can support organizations in collaborating for greater mission success.)

However, the new spirit of openness is much more than a regional phenomenon; it is an information age phenomenon.  As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine have explained in their groundbreaking book, The Networked Nonprofit, we are living an age where every stakeholder is a free agent online.  People who have strong ties or no ties at all to a nonprofit can use any number of social media channels to make facts and opinions about the organization available to everyone. While the privacy and security of client data is still an extremely high priority, nonprofits have already lost most of the battles in the war against transparency.  So they might as well embrace the practice of sharing information with other organizations and start looking for ways to make their programs, operations, and missions complementary.

Transparency, accountability, and collaboration in the nonprofit sector are mostly positive developments – especially when compared to obsession with control, covering up wrongdoings, and stonewalling. As Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Even if it were not, it’s clear that greater openness is now a fact of life in our culture.  Our focus should not be on fighting the information age, but in balancing between its imperatives and the need to respect the privacy of the innocent and vulnerable.

 

How much fun is the Nonprofit Technology Conference? This much fun. (Plus some thoughts about shifting from tactical to strategic support of nonprofit organizations.)

Deborah is delighted by the artist's rendition of a concept of Tech Networks of Boston's. The photo was taken at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference .

Photo by Peggy Duvette of Netsuite.Org.

The good folks of Netsuite.Org had a great idea for their exhibit area at the Nonprofit Technology Conference this year.  They asked attendees to describe their technology visions in three words.  I chose “shared” “data,” and “outcomes.” and an artist quickly drew up a visual to express this.  (Unfortunately, I did not note down her name; I hope I can find it in order to give her proper credit for her work.)  The photo shown above was taken by Peggy Duvette, and as you can see, I was delighted to see this concept, which is part of Tech Networks of Boston’s strategic thinking, become part of the patchwork quilt of ideas that were being expressed.

Here’s a close-up of the TNB concept:

I (Deborah) took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

I took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

At TNB, we are thinking more and more about collaborative technology management – not just in terms of how we work with our nonprofit clients, but also about how clusters of NTAPs and nonprofits can work together toward a shared long term goal.   We have great relationships (and in many cases, shared nonprofit clients) with some great local nonprofit technology assistance providers, such as Annkissam* and 501Partners.  The three NTAPs are already collaborating on a series of sales-pitch-free evenings in which local nonprofit professionals are offered pro bono tech consultations.

However, the potential exists to do so much more, especially considering how many clients we share.

Wouldn’t it be great if the three NTAPs could offer their shared clients the following:

1) Seamless integration of TNB, AK, and 501P’s services.

2) Shared best practices for clusters of nonprofits with similar programs, operations, or missions.

3) Coordinated outcomes measurement and management for nonprofits that have overlapping constituencies.

The joy of #15NTC is in realizing that although we are just three NTAPs in one region, we are part of a wider movement.  In fact, if you were to look at the entire collection of artist’s renderings that were done at the Netsuite.Org exhibit area, you’d see that many nonprofit organizations are on the cusp of dreaming this dream.  Most of in the nonprofit sector understand that for lasting positive change in the world, one program at a single nonprofit organization is not enough.  The future is in sharing and coordinating our work.  What if nonprofit technology assistance providers started with that challenge, rather than the challenge of keeping a network server from crashing?  The emphasis would shift from the tactical support of nonprofits to the strategic support of their missions.  And by “missions,” I don’t mean vague statements; I mean specific (and even quantifiable) positive changes that nonprofit profits have committed themselves to delivering to their stakeholders.

Because mission achievement is why we all get up in the morning to do our jobs.

And because building a nonprofit technology movement that supports mission achievement is the best possible reason for participating in the Nonprofit Technology Conference.

 

* I also serve Annkissam directly as a consultant.

 

 

 

And now, a word from your Senior Technical Advisor and Strategist…

Tech Networks of Boston

deborah-finn

I am totally delighted to announce that I have joined Tech Networks of Boston as their Senior Technical Advisor and Strategist.  It’s a pleasure to count as immediate colleagues my friends Susan Labandibar and Michael Fenter, and to be working with the client engagement team headed up by the awesome John Marchiony!

Here’s the TNB mission:

  • Engage with people at all levels of the client organization so that they can learn, manage information, and communicate easily in a safe and supportive computing environment.
  • Use experience, skills, and knowledge to help our clients build a mature information technology function that aligns with organizational mission and goals.
  • Enable nonprofit organizations to use innovative and effective information technology tools to serve human needs.

Talk about mission alignment!  I’ve already dedicated my professional life to these goals (plus a few others), but now I will be an integral part of an organization whose motto is “we’re better together,” rather than a lone nut! The ultimate in desired outcomes is that the world will be a better place, because the organizations that Tech Networks of Boston is serving will be succeeding in their missions.

At the same time, I want to assure my current clients that I will continue to be available to them on the usual basis, whenever they wish.  My commitment to TNB is for four-fifths time, to allow me to continue to work with clients as a solo practitioner.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to be in touch through the usual channels.  You are also welcome to contact me at my new office:

Tech Networks of Boston
1 Wadleigh Place
South Boston, MA  02127
617.269.0299 x (359)
888.527.9333 Fax
deborah.elizabeth.finn@techboston.com
http://www.techboston.com

What every nonprofit executive needs to know about information technology (Redux)

Smart Nonprofit Executive

This article is another in a series of republications of items from my now-defunct first blog.  I wrote this in 2004, as one of my first blog articles.  Reflecting on these ten items, I’d say that the underlying principles still hold true, although if I were writing if from scratch today, I’d include more examples and different examples.  I’d be less sure about the percentage break down of a typical nonprofit’s budget. I’d be more sanguine about donated services and hardware, in cases where a really well-planned and well-executed model was in place.The availability of cloud computing has probably made a couple of the bonus items obsolete, but it’s still important for a nonprofit CEO to know how to deal with the organization’s digital storehouse. 


29 Dec 2004 01:03 PM EDT

1.  Very little technical knowledge is required in order for nonprofit CEOs to participate actively in strategic IT planning.

As long as you thoroughly understand your organization’s overall mission, strategy, and tactics and (are willing to learn a little bit about the technology), you can keep your information technology infrastructure on target.

Example: Your mission is to save the whales (not to maintain a local area network)!  In order to save the whales, you need a strategy: to stay informed and inform others about the issues, lobby for policy changes, to issue action alerts, to raise money, and to maintain relationships with various legislators, constituents, communities, donors, potential friends, and allies. Keep pressing for tactics that will help you achieve your desired outcomes (saving whales); this will enable you to hold your own in most discussions with technical experts.

2. Your board of directors should be calling for and participating in your strategic information technology planning.

If they’re not, it’s time to recruit some board members who are techies. For example, your region probably has an internet service provider, a high-tech corporation, or a large retail firm with an extensive IT department. Perhaps you can recruit representatives from these organizations to serve on your board as part of their community benefits program.

3.  A tremendous number of high-quality resources for strategic IT planning are available to nonprofits at no charge.

Free advice, products, and services make it possible for nonprofits to lower the risk of trying new technology – but in the long run you’ll have to pay real money to have precisely the right tools for supporting your mission.

4.  You can keep an eye on innovations in IT, and think about possible uses for them in the nonprofit sector, even if you don’t have a technical background.

If you regularly read the technology columns of a good daily newspaper, and a few general interest magazines such as “PC Monthly,” “MAC User,” or “Network World,” you will soon catch on to the basic concepts and terminology.  (Don’t worry if it seems over your head at first – you’ll catch on! Everybody has to start somewhere.)

Example: You work for a nonprofit organization with five employees and four non-networked computers. It’s time to link them up so that you and your colleagues can share information and regularly back up your work. As you read articles on wireless networking, and look at the building where you work – which is a pre-electricity Victorian house only somewhat successfully retrofitted for its current functions – you see that you may actually save money by going wireless.

You ask your IT vendors for estimates on drilling and running cables through the building, and find that the cost of labor, support, upgrades, future expansion, and maintenance for a more conventional network will exceed that of a simple wireless network.

5.  Information technology, no matter how strategically you apply it, will probably never save your nonprofit organization any money.

It will, however, enable you to work more effectively. You will probably be able to do more work, of higher quality, with fewer person-hours. But don’t be surprised if this raises the bar of expectations on the part of the board, the community, the clients, the constituents, and the donors!

6.  You need an in-house IT committee.

Convene an Information Technology team or working group, within your nonprofit, and make sure that you meet regularly to give input to the senior management on strategic IT issues.

The team should include a cross-section of staff – administration and finance, programmatic, secretarial. Be sure to include staff members who are overtly or covertly technophobic; their concerns should be addressed.

7.  Secretaries and administrative assistants should be the lynchpins of your IT infrastructure. Budgeting for IT training for these employees can be one of your best investments.

Which staff members are more likely to be there when problems arise, to knowabout the technical abilities (and phobias) of their colleagues, and to know where the (paper or electronic) files are? Professional development that includes IT training is likely to increase job satisfaction and employee retention. Don’t forget to revise job descriptions and job titles as your secretaries and administrative assistants move into IT management responsibilities!

8.  In the long run, IT training and support (and other operating expenses) will make up about 70% of your IT budget.

The more obvious line items – such as hardware, software, and network services – will comprise about 30%. This is a highly counter-intuitive fact of nonprofit life. However, there is research on the “Total Cost of Ownership” that bears this out.

9.  Donated hardware, software, and services can cost a nonprofit more than purchased products or services in the long run.

The cost in person hours of using and maintaining non-standard or sub-standard configurations is astonishingly high, and donated equipment tends to be in non-standard or sub-standard. Likewise, donated services will cost you a great deal of time in support, supervision, and ongoing maintenance. Beware of the web site design services donated by a close relative of the chair of your board! You may end up with something that you don’t like, can’t use, or can’t easily change.

10. In a nonprofit organization, most strategic IT problems are actually organizational development problems.

Is it a CEO who is resistant to technical innovations? A board of directors that hesitates to make the commitment to raise the money need for the IT infrastructure? Line staff who are already stressed and overworked, and can’t stop to learn and implement new technologies? An inability to make outsourced IT consultants or in-house IT staff understand organizational processes? All the information technology in the world won’t resolve these issues, if you don’t address them at the organizational level.

Bonus items: Hands-on IT skills that the CEO, CFO, and COO of every small nonprofit ought to have:

  • How to compose, send, read, and delete email, using the organization’s standard application.
  • How to create and save a simple text document, using the organization’s standard application.
  • How to do the daily back up of the system.
  • How to bring down and bring up the network server.

Now that you’ve read what I formulated in 2004, I’d like to invite you to post comments about what you’d add, cut, or revise in this list of crucial knowledge for nonprofit executives.

Michael Fenter will be joining Tech Networks of Boston!

Michael Fenter Tech Networks of Boston

I’ve been doing a happy dance about this, because we’re all about to see fantastic people working together!

Susan Labandibar is the founder of Tech Networks of Boston (TNB), a passionate environmental activist, my friend, my colleague, my sometime client, and a fellow Boston Technobabe.

Michael Fenter is a consummate  technology professional, a man who cares deeply about making the world a better place, a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, my friend, my colleague, and my neighbor.

I was thrilled when Susan called me recently to say that she had hired Michael.  Two people I admire deeply will now be on the same team, and the beneficiaries will be nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts that need IT support.

Both Susan and Michael are individuals with a profoundly spiritual calling – though not necessarily in the denominational or doctrinal sense of that phrase.  They believe in service to mission-based organizations, and they manifest their commitments in the form of very practical assistance.  Their heads may be in the clouds, but their feet are on the ground.

Susan has a talent for hiring great people, and I hope that the other members of her organization’s staff won’t think I’m disregarding their wonderful qualities.*  However, it’s especially delightful when two of my special buddies work together. I’m expecting to see a great leap forward for TNB team, as they expand their “Collaborative Technology Management” offerings.


* Likewise, there are other firms in the Boston area that provide first-rate IT support to nonprofit organizations.  It all depends on finding a really good fit between the support model and the client organization’s needs – however, I will say that the other two firms that have really impressed me are Baird Associates, NPV, and InSource Services.

“We count our successes in lives”

Brent James

Brent James is one of my new heroes.  He’s a physician, a researcher, and the chief quality officer of Intermountain Healthcare’s Institute for Health Care Delivery Research.

We had a very inspiring telephone conversation this afternoon, about whether the lessons learned from evidence-based medicine could be applied to nonprofits that are seeking to manage their outcomes.  We also swapped some stories and jokes about the ongoing struggle to document a causal relationship between what a health care organization (or a social service agency, or an arts group, or an environmental coalition, for that matter) does and what the organization’s stated aims are.  In fact, documenting that an organization is doing more good than harm, and less harm than doing nothing at all, continues to be a perplexing problem.  The truth may be less than obvious – in fact, it may be completely counter-intuitive.

In this phone conversation, we also waded into deep epistemological waters, reflecting on how we know we have succeeded, and also on the disturbing gap between efficacy and effectiveness.

It’s not merely a philosophical challenge, but a political one, to understand where the power lies to define success and to set the standards of proof.

I doubt that this is what William James (no relation to Brent, as far as I know) had in mind when he referred to success as “the bitch-goddess,” but there’s no doubt that defining, measuring, and reporting on one’s programmatic success is a bitch for any nonprofit professional with intellectual and professional integrity.  It’s both difficult and urgent.

What particularly struck me during my conversation with Brent was his remark about Intermountain Healthcare:

“We count our successes in lives.”

On the surface, that approach to counting successes seems simple and dramatic.  The lives of patients are on the line.  They either live or die, with the help of Intermountain Healthcare.  But it’s really a very intricate question, once we start asking whether Intermountain’s contribution is a positive one, enabling the patients to live the lives and die the deaths that are congruent with their wishes and values.

These questions are very poignant for me, and not just because I’m cancer patient myself, and not just because yesterday I attended the funeral of a revered colleague and friend who died very unexpectedly.  These questions hit me where I live professionally as well, because earlier this week, I met with the staff of a fantastic nonprofit that is striving to do programmatic outcomes measurement, and is faced with questions about how to define success in a way that can be empirically confirmed or disconfirmed.  Their mission states that they will help their clients excel in a specific industry and in their personal lives.  They have a coherent theory of change, and virtually all of their criteria of professional and personal success are quantifiable.  Their goals are bold but not vague. (This is a dream organization for anyone interested in outcomes management, not to mention that the staff members are smart and charming.)  However, it’s not entirely clear yet whether the goals that add up to success for each client are determined solely by the staff or by the client or some combination thereof.  I see it as a huge issue, not just on an operational level, but on a philosophical one; it’s the difference between self-determination and paternalism.  I applaud this organization’s staff for their willingness to explore the question.

When Brent talked about counting successes in terms of lives, I thought about this nonprofit organization, which defines its mission in terms of professional and personal success for its clients.  The staff members of that organization, like so many nonprofit professionals, are ultimately counting their successes in lives, though perhaps not as obviously as health care providers do.  Surgeons receive high pay and prestige for keeping cancer patients alive and well – for the most part, they fully deserve it.  But let’s also count the successes of the organization that helps a substantial number of people win jobs that offer a living wage and health insurance, along with other benefits such as G.E.D.s, citizenship, proficiency in English, home ownership, paid vacations, and college educations for the workers’ children. Nonprofit professionals who can deliver that are also my heroes, right up there with Brent James.  While we’re holding them to high standards of proof of success, I hope that we can find a way to offer them the high pay and prestige that we already grant to the medical profession.

Harsh truths

Illustration from "Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person" by David Wong    http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/
Perhaps as a counter-balance to my previous blog post, I’ve been reflecting on an article by David Wong that appeared this month in Cracked.Com: “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person.”

While I don’t agree with all of Wong’s assertions, there are a few that I think we should take to heart in the nonprofit sector.  I present them here as bullet points:

  • “The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You”

Wong points out two corollaries to this:  “…society is full of people who need things….”  and “(e)ither you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving and polite you are.

He’s right, or at least he should be.

(We all know of high-profile nonprofit professionals whose main achievement is making people feel warm inside.  They don’t contribute to any lasting and positive change, but they get plenty of photo opportunities.  If this were an entirely fair universe, the world would be rejecting them, and instead it applauds them.  However, they are the exceptions.)

Most of us are plebs in the nonprofit sector, and we are obliged to solve problems in order to justify our continued employment.  That’s the way it should be.  At the end of the day, if our organization’s mission is to save whales, then we should be judged on how our efforts add up to success in saving whales.  That might involve sticking to methods that have stood the test of time, or to finding ways to save more whales with fewer resources, or to finding ways to ensure that once we save them they stay healthy for the long run.   We have to keep our eye on results, and not give free passes to people who are merely impassioned without being effective.

By this I don’t mean that personalities and processes should be completely discounted.  It’s important to be considerate, ethical, and fair.  It’s also important to value the processes enough to learn from both failures and successes.  But having a pure heart is not enough, either as a process or an outcome, when your self-proclaimed mission is to save the whales.

  • “What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People”
‘Nuff said, right?  This the nonprofit sector, right? It’s not just that people ask “what’s in it for me?” when they donate, it’s that we’re living in an WIIFM universe. If what’s in it for us, as nonprofit professionals, is the dubious glamor of altruism, I suppose that’s alright, but we still have an obligation to make our work more than a vanity project.  Again, if it were a fair world, then effective projects would get more love than vanity projects.  But even though it’s unfair, there’s still a principle involved that obligates us to be as effective as possible in benefiting the world, even when that’s less glamorous.
  • “Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement”

Thank you, Mr. Wong.  This is true indeed – not just for individuals, but for nonprofit organizations.  This one of the most compelling reasons why outcomes management is such an uphill battle in our sector.  It’s not just that we don’t like being judged by our results; it’s that we don’t like having to change.

I’m not using the first person plural (e.g., “we”) here in a abstract, vague, editorial way.  I’m using it, because I’m talking about flaws in which I fully partake.  When Wong says, “(t)he human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change,” he’s certainly speaking to my condition.

Here is his list of the powerful defense mechanisms of which I am (and perhaps you are) capable of fielding when we are challenged or criticized:

              “Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult”

              “Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message”

             Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content”

              Revising (My) Own History”

             “Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out (My) True Self”

Of course, my personal favorite is the last mentioned. When I start wallowing in it, I do my best to remember that there are more important (and perhaps more valid) ethical principles at stake than expressing what I take to be my essential nature.

In fact, it’s our obligation to submit to public scrutiny and criticism when we work in the nonprofit sector.  (At least, it is in the U.S.; I can’t say much about other countries.)  As George McCully points out in his book Philanthropy Reconsidered, we are engaged in private initiatives for the public good, and the public has a right to evidence that we deserve the trust that is vested in us.  They deserve to know that we are striving to serve them with both processes and results that are valid, and that we are quickly learning from processes and results that do not yield strong positive benefits over the long run.

The agony of choice

I recently had both the pleasure and the pain of sitting in with a much-loved nonprofit, as its staff members interviewed several nonprofit technology assistance firms regarding a contract for services.  It was certainly a pleasure to find that my esteemed client organization had more than a few really strong options.

Here are a few thoughts that I took away from that series of interviews:

  • Local is good.  The client organization is all about social responsibility, and it would be good to know that the dollars that they spend on this contract – which is pretty big, by their standards – will go back into the local economy.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that a great local business can be bought and swallowed up by a faceless mega-corporation.
  • Small is good.  I’d feel much better knowing that the staff of my client organization will be talking to the same small group of specialists at the NTAP’s help desk over time.  It’s not just about the relationships, but also about the intimate knowledge of the client’s infrastructure that the technology assistance firm’s team has in their heads when the phone rings.  A small firm with low turnover can offer that.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that the small firm will be bought out by a much larger, much more impersonal one.
  • The “soft” stuff is good.  It’s not just about technical prowess.  A good personality, an ability to build relationships, and an eagerness to communicate are all crucial in a technology firm that will be successful in serving my client.
  • Strategic is good.  This wonderful nonprofit really needs it’s nonprofit technology vendors to help it stay aware of important new opportunities and challenges, and to think ahead about the best way to support the mission.  I don’t mean up-selling; I mean actively working in the interests of the client.

(God knows that as a consultant I try to embody these positive qualities myself. If you want to know whether I’m succeeding, don’t ask me.  Ask my clients, or if you are one my clients, please feel free to tell me how I can improve.)

For the client in question, it’s not a matter of desperation stemming from scarcity of available services, but a tough choice.  No matter which firm the nonprofit organization chooses, it will involve risk, and they’ll never know for sure whether they would have been much happier with another choice.

Given the difficulties, the good news is that with the strong options before them, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll make a disastrous choice.  But that also means that some extremely nice and extremely well-qualified people will be disappointed, because they are all really eager to get the contract, and only one will be selected.  That really hurts.

Fortunately, I’m in a good position as a yenta to nonprofits and foundations; as I learn more about each of these technology support firms, I will keep them in mind, and recommend them when I am asked for referrals.  In the best of all possible worlds, both the beloved clients and the esteemed vendors find the perfect matches; since we haven’t quite arrived there yet, people like me should do our best to help the process whenever we can.

Outcomes measurement for nonprofits: Who does the analysis?

I invite you to participate in this survey, bearing in mind that it is for recreational purposes, and has no scientific value:

There are many reasons that this survey is of dubious value, for example:

  • 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 qualitative social 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.

The state of nonprofit data: Uh-oh!

The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) has released a report prepared by Idealware on the current state of nonprofit data.  Highly recommended!

Some of the news it contains is scary.  In our sector, we currently aren’t very successful at collecting and analyzing the most crucial data.  For example, only 50% of the respondents reported that their nonprofit organizations are tracking data about the outcomes of clients/constituents.

According to the survey respondents, there are daunting barriers to tracking and using data:

  • issues related to collecting and working with data (27 percent of responses).
  • lack of expertise (24 percent of responses)
  • issues of time and prioritization (22 percent of responses).
  • challenges with technology (23 percent).

Page 13 of the report features a chart that I find especially worrisome.  It displays of types of data that nonprofit organizations should or could be using, with large chunks falling into three chilling categories:

  • we don’t know how to track this
  • we don’t have the technology to effectively track this
  • we don’t have the time/money to effectively track this

In the case of data about outcomes, 17% lack the knowledge, 20% lack the technology, and 22% lack the time or money (or both) to track it.

Are you scared yet?  I confess that I am.  Perhaps half of all nonprofits surveyed don’t know – and don’t have the resources to find out – whether there is any causal relationship between what their activities and the social good that they are in business to achieve.

And that’s just programmatic outcomes.  The news is also not very encouraging when it comes to capturing data about organizational budgets, constituent participation in programs, and external trends in the issue areas being addressed by nonprofit organizations.

So much for the bad news.  The good news is that now we know.

It takes some courage to acknowledge that the baseline is so low.  I applaud Idealware and NTEN for creating and publishing this report.  Now that we know, we can address the problem and take effective action.

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