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Nonprofit Assessment: Richer Perspectives

How should we evaluate nonprofits?

Donors look for assurances that the resources they provide are being used well. Those of us in nonprofit leadership look for ways to justify the hard work we do.

We live in a culture of numbers, so we count. How many pounds of food did we distribute? How many houses were rebuilt?

But since we work with people, it's hard to measure good work. There are so many variables. Progress is slow. You can count meals; it's hard to count healthier lives. How do we know we are making a difference?

I propose that assessment can be meaningful, even if it might not be easily quantifiable.

Here are five evaluation tools for nonprofit leaders. It should not be a surprise that ethics, the discipline of thinking about the quality of human action, can help us think carefully and well when numbers don't seem enough.

1. Rules: the best action is guided by principles

In this way of thinking, we assess how we live up to larger or higher principles. A great example is the Golden Rule; another is the tax code.

Broadly speaking, the obligations we take on are both an expression of our values and a measure of our worth. Do we serve a worthy aim? Our mission statements usually point us toward larger and higher ends. They can serve to govern and assess all we do.

Service to a higher principle makes a good case for our work, even if we cannot demonstrate significant difference in a big problem. Rule-based ethics would argue that we are called to do what we can, no matter what.

More narrowly, nonprofits operate under many rules, and the list is expanding. Whistleblower policies, conflict of interest statements, and similar policies are rules to follow. Regulations govern our nonprofit status as instruments of the public good.

Questions: Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing it in the right way?

2. Consequences: the best action does the greatest good for the greatest number

What are our outcomes? Do they demonstrate efficient, focused, smart, productive use of our resources? Are they aligned with our mission?

These questions seem the focus of most evaluation. They are useful, but they have limits.

Outcomes offer ways to document impact. Outcomes pull us away from a dreamy, big-idea approach that tempts us when we use larger principles such as "doing the right thing" alone. When is it counterproductive to keep on "doing the right thing" without results? Asking about outcomes and consequences can balance rule-based considerations by adding another question: what difference does it make?

And outcomes offer a great experimental tool. We can test various approaches to decide which is best. Some improvements can be counted.

But outcomes often are ambiguous, open to a variety of interpretations. Our interpretations are colored by our biases; we see what we want to see. And they are not fully predictable; we have no way of knowing what the long-term impact will be.

Outcomes-based assessment alone is helpful but not enough. It may be better suited to organizations with clearly defined bottom lines, such as profit or production.

Questions: Are we making a difference? How do we know?

3. Character, or virtue: good organizations are good people doing good things well

The language of excellence speaks not only to skill at doing something but also to the quality of a person, an organization, its people, and its work. The ethics of virtue encourage us to take care of these qualities. How?

Virtue ethics tell us that as we choose to act well and practice the good, we build good habits, we grow in character, and we attain excellence. Such thinking underlies most guilds and disciplines: athletics, arts, professions, skilled work.

It can help us understand what constitutes excellence in our organizations as well.

Question: Do we have good people?

As Jim Collins suggests, we need to have "the right people on the bus." How does our staff stack up? Do they work competently, with care, in a good spirit? Are they committed, collaborative, and persistent? "The right people," people who exhibit such qualities, can be hard to find.

Question: Do we do our work well?

Excellence differs from place to place, but this question ought to be asked everywhere.

Does the character of our work reflect our values? Does its quality and style demonstrate a care for excellence, no matter the client? Does it promote good in those who serve as well as those who are served?

These are questions related to means more than beginnings or ends. How we do something is as important as the outcomes we intend. We can do the right thing by giving a meal, and we can serve a large number of hungry people efficiently. But if we feed people without hospitality, we risk eroding deeper nourishment. A simple meal served in love may feed better than a feast.

These questions also help us think about the quality of the organization itself. Good people doing good things well for the right purposes usually leads to integrity. Integrity involves that hard-to-define quality we call organizational culture. You know it when you see it—or when you see its absence.

4. Context: it's good if it fits the situation

Another assessment question asks, What is best for this context? Our response depends on particulars. We can be doing the right thing well with little impact because we are not taking the context into account.

Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible tells of a missionary family whose father tries to plant vegetables that grow in Georgia but that don't have a chance in Africa. The vegetable garden is a metaphor for the father's whole effort, which fails because it refuses to take seriously the people and place. Assessing how well our approach fits is important.

Ronald Heifetz raises contextual questions in his understanding of leadership in the face of adaptive challenges. Leadership requires followers. How much change can followers handle? Is a situation ripe? These are matters of fit with the context.

Question: Is our response the best fit?

5. Liberation: it's only good if it leads to greater human flourishing

This criterion demands that any evaluation needs to ask, Are we furthering the well-being of people and the world in which we live? It's an overriding concern that colors all the rest.

Paul Farmer, in Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, promotes a liberationist ethic often known as a "preferential option for the poor," or as workers at Partners in Health shorthand it, "an O for the P." Everything they do is measured by this one principle.

Questions: What about our work? Does it help make the world better for people? Does it transform not just individual lives but systems?

Bottom-line documentation helps. But these qualitative moral measures offer additional ways with which we can evaluate the work we are doing and make a case to ourselves and others that it is worth it.

Mark Miller-McLemore
© 2012, Mark Miller-McLemore. All rights reserved.

nonprofit-assessment-richer-perspectives_Mark-Miller-McLemore.jpgMark Miller-McLemore is dean of the Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt, an educational nonprofit serving ministry students. He also teaches leadership and ministry at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He earlier served for 15 years as pastor of a small congregation in the Chicago area that took the lead in starting South Suburban PADS, a shelter program for the homeless. He writes and speaks on leadership and change, theology, and ministry.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice