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Meeting The Future in California

Can we dream a minute?

Imagine a world where nonprofit leaders are committed to organizational learning and evaluation. Imagine a conference room with over a hundred nonprofit leaders studying about organizational dashboards, logic models, and theories of change.

Well, I have met the future, and it is here in Los Angeles, California!

By now you know of my personal quest to improve GuideStar’s services in helping donors and nonprofit organizations measure impact and effectiveness. We want to help answer the questions “Are you making progress?” and “How do you know?” In March we added two important improvements to our Web site: launching the GuideStar Exchange, which asks nonprofits to provide data on a series of questions measuring “success,” and adding GreatNonProfits, a service that allows donors, volunteers, and program recipients to comment on a nonprofit’s performance. Both are big leaps forward in providing more evaluation tools, but they are only interim steps in what we think is ultimately needed. Last week we also posted a Webinar we recently hosted with Jacob Harold of the Hewlett Foundation on evaluation.

On Friday, May 8, I attended portions of a two-day conference in Los Angeles hosted by the California Wellness Foundation. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that GuideStar has received a grant from the foundation.) Participating were over a hundred nonprofit leaders, almost all from California locations. The title of the conference was “Organizational Learning and Evaluation,” and speakers included Jan Masaoka, editor-in-chief of the nonprofit magazine Blue Avocado, Marissa Tirona of CompassPoint, and Steven LaFrance of the LFA Group.

My congratulations to the California Wellness Foundation! What a great—and important—idea toward helping improve the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations across the state of California. This is a model for education and improvement that I hope will catch on among other foundations.

Marissa Tirona asked, “Do we measure what’s important and do we make important what we measure?” She started with a great quote from Warren Bennis: “We have more information now than we can use, and less knowledge and understanding than we need. … The true measure of any society is not what it knows but what it does with what it knows.” She took her classroom (full of eager students) through a step-by-step process for establishing numerical measures of quantity, quality, and performance that can be used to track organizational impact, efficiency, employee satisfaction, and governance. She stressed that dashboards are essential not only for improving organizational effectiveness but also for getting board, management, and staff on the same page in terms of agreeing on what is important. She ended with a powerful quote from Thomas A. McLaughlin: “Organizational culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Steven LaFrance, the founder and principal of LFA Group, led several workshops on how important it is to leverage data collections to support fundamental organizational activities, including communicating with funders and important stakeholders. He led us through a very helpful explanation of how to construct logic models and theories of change. LaFrance emphasized how important it is to get started—it doesn’t matter if your work is perfect at first—and challenged another common nonprofit excuse: our work is so unique there are no measures. He quoted Jim Collins: “It doesn’t really matter whether you can quantify your results. What matters is that you rigorously assemble evidence—quantitative or qualitative—to track your progress.” He reminded all of us that “using evaluation is key to making the case for health and human services in tight times.”

All in all a great investment of time: an admirable foundation hosting a productive event, terrific speakers, and committed nonprofit leaders gathered together to improve their organizations’ performance.

Topics: Technology Impact