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The Power of the People

I have believed for a while that the feedback of real people is an important source of data when evaluating the work of a nonprofit organization.

Several years ago, we formed a partnership with GreatNonprofits to encourage the comments of donors, volunteers and program recipients about their interactions with a nonprofit in the form of “personal reviews.” In 2011, nonprofits received 16,903 reviews through our site alone, and you can learn more about writing reviews here: http://www2.guidestar.org/rxg/give-to-charity/review-a-charity.aspx.

Last year, we acquired Philanthropedia which has developed an innovative way to capture the wisdom of program officers and content experts: http://www.myphilanthropedia.org/.

Our pioneering work has been slower than I would have liked in developing a critical mass of user reviews, but sometimes slow and steady wins the race. Change often comes slowly in the nonprofit sector.

However, last week I watched a truly remarkable event unfold online before my very eyes: the people came together and through the power of user reviews, changed the way the public looked at a nonprofit.

Let me take a step back and give you the background first:

Last week, I woke up to the news that the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, also known as Susan G. Komen for the Cure, had barred grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. That affected Planned Parenthood, because, as the Washington Post wrote, “… it’s the focus of an inquiry launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., seeking to determine whether public money was improperly spent on abortions.”

Shortly after, our PR Manager brought a Daily Kos article to my attention that pointed out how many nonprofits were using the personal reviews on our site to sound off about their disappointment with that decision. As a result, the previously five-star Komen Foundation fell to a three-star rating.

Shortly thereafter, I saw Kivi Leroux Miller’s blog about the impact that these negative reviews had on the Komen Foundation’s overall brand. Kivi’s blog, in turn, was talked about in plenty of places – including Beth Kanter’s blog. By this point the media storm had turned into a frenzy, and I was impressed by the power of the people to turn a debate into action.

The Consumerist piece about GuideStar’s role dialogue paints a pretty accurate picture: http://consumerist.com/2012/02/angry-reviewers-sink-komen-foundations-guidestar-rating.html.

And as a result of all of the backlash, the Komen Foundation now has a GreatNonprofits user review rating of one-star on our site. They have received 623 personal reviews, and I’m hard pressed to find a positive one in the recent past.

Social media has played a critical role in this issue – just look at a search on Twitter for GuideStar and Komen and you’ll see hundreds of results pop up: https://twitter.com/#!/search/GuideStar%20Komen

Whenever I’m questioned about the inclusion of user reviews from GreatNonprofits and Philanthropedia on GuideStar, I always respond that it would be inappropriate to use personal reviews as the only way of measuring a nonprofit.

And by the way, it would also be inappropriate to use only one Form 990 or any other single data point (most emphatically the dreaded overhead ratio). We recommend that any evaluation include a variety of data points – a 360 degree view – which is what our new nonprofit report format tries to provide.

But the events of the past week with Komen (and before that with SOPA) are making me think – as an avid proponent of user reviews – that I may have underestimated the power of the people to measure the performance of a nonprofit.

Topics: Policy