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GuideStar Blog

From the President's Office, May 2009

Dear Friend:

How do you define success?

Last week, GuideStar offered a free Webinar on the subject of "How Do You Define Success?" In promoting the event we used this example: "You're completing a grant application for a specific program. You need to say how you're going to measure the program's short-term and long-term success. You throw your hands in the air and ask, 'How?'"

You might think this is a subject only for the academics and the theoreticians, but all 500 seats to the Webinar were reserved—well in advance of the event! If there was any doubt, this clearly is an issue of great concern to many nonprofit managers. View a recording of the free Webinar

Here at GuideStar, our mission is to provide data and tools in order to help donors make better and more confident decisions and to assist nonprofits in operating more efficient and effective organizations, thereby increasing their public service. After focusing for many years solely on transparency, we recognize that our users are looking for more help in determining the effectiveness of organizations. Our newly launched Exchange program and our inclusion of constituency reviews through our partner GreatNonprofits are two ways we're helping users concerned with effectiveness.

Our guest speaker for the Webinar was Jacob Harold, the program officer of the Philanthropy Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The Philanthropy Program "seeks to improve the practice of philanthropy and to provide resources to support strategic decision-making by donors." It's a goal remarkably similar to GuideStar's mission.

Jacob has an interesting background that makes him ideally suited for his current position. He knows what it is like to work for a nonprofit organization, and he has long focused on the subject of measuring effectiveness. Jacob joined the Hewlett Foundation from the Bridgespan Group—a nonprofit spin-off of Bain and Company—where he advised a variety of nonprofit and foundation clients on programmatic and organizational strategy. He worked as a climate change consultant in New Delhi, India, for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and as a climate change campaigner for Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace USA. Before that, he was the organizing director for Citizen Works, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on corporate governance issues, and spent a year as a grassroots organizer with Green Corps, where he led campaigns on climate change, forest protection, and tobacco control in cities across the country.

On a personal note, Jacob has been a terrific guy to work with. I've appreciated his suggestions, encouragement, and wise counsel on how to improve GuideStar's services. The Hewlett Foundation has been a generous funder of GuideStar's work for nearly a decade and recently awarded us a grant of $1 million to help us improve the collection of high-quality data about nonprofits and to help donors identify effective organizations.

Jacob had the demeanor of a patient teacher in his presentation, simple and straightforward. Measuring success is hard to do, he acknowledged—but we all need to start somewhere. A few questions can help. What exactly are we trying to accomplish with our organizations? How do we actually measure it?

We often get tripped up on definitions. Jacob offered several easy guidelines. Inputs are what you use; activities are what you do; outputsare what happens; outcomes are the results and the impact over time.

The Webinar prompted many interesting questions. Two seemed particularly perceptive:

  • Does a strong nonprofit mean a big budget?
    Answer: Good financial performance doesn't always suggest social impact.
  • How do you measure progress when time horizons of social change are frequently different from grant horizons?
    Answer: Qualitative feedback is a good short-term way to measure progress.

What barriers or obstacles do you encounter when you define success for your organization? 


Bob Ottenhoff
President and CEO

Topics: Webinars