The preceding is a cross-post of a March 7th article by Vu Le from his blog, Nonprofit with Balls. To read the original post, click here.
Hi everyone, this post will likely be my last coherent one for a while, because my second baby is due to arrive next Tuesday, March 15th (Eeeeeeek!) I plan to keep up with my weekly writing schedule, because I have my priorities. But that means the next 20 posts or so will reflect the hallucinogenic, meandering thoughts of a sleep-deprived father of a toddler and a newborn. Grammar and spelling may be questionable, and there will probably be a lot of baby-related analogies, such as “Restricting funding is like using duct tape as a diaper; sure, it makes you feel clever, but—OMG, please please just go to sleep, Daddy is so tired!”
For some wacky reason that I can’t comprehend, there seems to be this pervasive notion that nonprofits don’t have clear outcomes. In the past few months, I’ve heard this several times in various places. At a leadership seminar last June, for example, a colleague from the business sector said, “Nonprofits are just so squishy on outcomes.” I think squishy was her exact word. Or maybe slippery. Or fishy? Whatever, it was not complimentary. I got so annoyed I had to look at several pictures of baby animals on my phone to calm down.
Meanwhile, the comments on my post “Hey, you want nonprofits to act more like businesses? Then treat us like businesses” included this:
“I am often disconcerted by the lack of clear outcomes. In any for-profit business, you don’t launch without expected outcomes/metrics – qualitative and/or quantitative. These usually evolve and change along the way, but there is always a way for investors to gauge ROI and impact. Many nonprofits still don’t have these outcomes defined nor do they have consistent processes to evaluate and evolve. In the absence of a clearly discernible way to determine ‘success,’ funders are forced to ask for breakdowns or make (often detrimental) assumptions.”
Hearing these comments is really baffling, like seeing a dog walk backward, or trying vegan coconut “bacon” for the first time. Considering that most nonprofits write grants, and all grants force us to spell out outcomes, and many require us to create a logic model, which is a condensed chart of outcomes, I am confused why anyone thinks we don’t have clear outcomes. I mean, here’s my org’s evaluation map (created with help of our friends at TrueBearing). You may not agree with our outcomes, but to say we don’t have any clear ones is disingenuous and insulting. You don’t have to like my wild mushroom and chocolate chip risotto, but don’t you dare say I never cook!
This is actually kind of alarming. Maybe we nonprofits don’t do a very good job communicating with people outside our field, and that’s why there are these rampant notions and beliefs out there among the other sectors. Who knows what other ridiculous and damaging narratives are being reinforced in people’s minds? The quack notion that we should keep overhead below 15%? The misguided belief that nonprofits can be self-sufficient and “sustainable”?
So let’s talk about nonprofit outcomes then, because we need to dispel this bizarre and unfounded belief many of our friends tend to have. Here are several challenges with outcomes and evaluation, as pointed out by many of my nonprofit colleagues; this may help explain the confusion:
Nonprofit outcomes are complex: While most for-profits’ outcomes basically boil down to whether they made more money than they spent, we nonprofits don’t have that luxury. We are dealing with complex issues such as mental health, homelessness, education equity, domestic violence, human trafficking, community building, environmental justice, food security, access to art, etc.
Nonprofit outcomes are often not linear or predictable: A kid drops out halfway through a mentorship program. That nonprofit probably can’t count that toward a successful outcome. But who the heck knows how much impact his six months in the program had on him? Sometimes our outcomes take years to manifest. Heck, that kid, even though he dropped out, may just grow up and enroll his own kid in a similar program because he was exposed to the concept of mentorship.
Process is just as important as end results: This may be a strange concept for many people outside our sector, but HOW we reach outcomes is often as important as the outcomes themselves. To do it in such a way where we follow our values of equity and community and ensure the right people are leading and participating and in culturally competent ways adds another layer to the outcomes.
Return on Investment (ROI) is difficult to calculate: You can tell an investor that their dollars will yield a 5-to-1 return or whatever, but go ahead and try to figure
out ROI on providing mental health services or getting citizens to vote or helping close the academic achievement gap. Sure, it can be done, but that brings us to another challenge:
Evaluation takes time and money: Because of all the complexity, evaluation of nonprofits is incredibly time-and-resource-intensive in order to do a thorough and scientifically valid job. And there are ethical issues to contend with, such as the requirement for control groups, which means services would have to be denied to those who really need it. Unfortunately, funding for this area is skimpy and rarely sufficient, because it’s far sexier to fund the program itself and not stupid, frivolous things like evaluation.
The Danger with the Obsession with ROI
The biggest issue that I see with this confusion about nonprofits’ outcomes is the misalignment of values between the nonprofit sector and people demanding clearer and better outcomes. When most people say “nonprofits don’t have clear outcomes,” I think what they really mean is “Nonprofits don’t have outcomes that I like or find valuable.” A while ago I wrote this post, “Nonprofits’ ultimate outcome: Bringing unicorns back to the world,” about the damaging influence of this ROI-obsessed thinking, and about the intrinsic value of serving people. A colleague echoes the same frustrations:
“It irritated the crap out of me that it wasn’t enough to provide food, transportation, housekeeping, yardwork, companionship, and other services for frail and disabled seniors. I had to provide ‘outcomes.’ We de-slimed 60 seniors’ decks, stairs, and walkways each winter – but that wouldn’t be enough for the likes of you. No, I’d have to devote a third of our operating budget for a study to prove to you that this work would mean fewer falls broken hips and therefore lower medical bills to the government health care systems and better quality of life […] Can’t you accept that it’s a good thing for seniors not to fear that they’ll fall on their slippery walkways? I can tell you how many were done. That they can get to medical appointments? I can tell you how many miles they were driven. That they have a friend in the community? I can tell you how many hours of companionship. Why isn’t that good enough for you?”
This dissonance between our services and goals and what many people consider “good, clear outcomes” is dangerous and something we need to take seriously. It seems like we all have a lot of work to do to counter these damaging narratives about nonprofits, since it affects organizations’ funding and flexibility to do their work. Here are a few things we need to do:
Nonprofits: Speak up and communicate your organizations’ goals more clearly and overtly; chances are you know them very well, but your donors and funders and community may not. Also, push back on the people who say ridiculous things. When you hear “Nonprofit outcomes are squishy and fishy,” take a deep breath, smile, and ask some questions, such as “Would you mind elaborating on what you mean?” and “I’d love to hear your thoughts on, and maybe some examples of, good outcomes.” Chances are, they may just be repeating these lines, just like they repeat other lines like “nonprofits spend too much on overhead” without having much experience or knowledge of our sector. Use it as an opportunity to learn and to enlighten.
Funders: Increase funding for evaluation as well as planning around evaluation. It’s complex, so it’s expensive. You want nonprofits to be better at differentiating between outputs vs. outcomes, do a longitudinal study, disaggregate data into income level and zip codes and age and ethnicity? Then provide funds so we can get it done. If you require it, make sure you are helping to pay for it. While we’re at it, how about increasing funding for communication? That will help us provide clearer and more frequent messaging around our outcomes, which will help us increase donations and do our work better.
Everyone else: Listen, nonprofits have outcomes, all right? And we care about outcomes, and in fact, we’d rather people just allow us to focus on developing and achieving outcomes, instead of spending time on ridiculous things like figuring out which funder is paying for which part of the rent and who’s paying for toilet paper. Our outcomes are complex, usually difficult to measure, and maybe not even communicated all that well sometimes, because we have limited resources and we’re busy providing services. And yes, some of us suck at creating outcomes. And overall, you may not like our outcomes. But stop saying we don’t have any. It’s irritating and untrue. Please do us nonprofits a favor: If you want to know what a nonprofit’s outcomes are—ask.
I have a couple of exciting announcements!!! First, upon some colleagues’ requests, I’ve created a Facebook Group called “Nonprofit Happy Hour.” It’s a public forum for nonprofit professionals to provide advice, support to one another, and share jokes about unicorns and hummus. Please go join the group and actively participate. And tell your friends about it. Also, if you are or were an ED, there is a special confidential ED/CEO-only group (“ED Happy Hour”) where you can get advice from your colleagues.
Also, hilarious nonprofit guru Joan Garry just launched a podcast series, and I’m on the 4th episode, to be released tomorrow, 3/8/16. I don’t remember what I actually said, since hearing my own voice on tape creeps me out. Probably something about tequila. Check it out.
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Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.