Show Me! What Savvy Donors Want from Non-profits

Donors want measured impact, not just a statement of organizational goals and activities. They want to know that what an organization does matters.

We all have our favorite causes. Finding an organization that is moving the needle on our favorite cause is gratifying and likely engenders our ongoing support. More and more, it’s a requirement for the survival of a non-profit.

“We are making a difference!” is a nice tag line but savvy donors want proof of the difference a non-profit is making. The days of counting heads (“we provided training to 100 people”) as a way of justifying an organization’s existence are over. It’s now about what changed, in whole or in part, as a result of what the organization did.

Whether you are a non-profit or a donor, here are some tips to keep in mind when showing or judging impact:

Changes in behavior are more powerful than changes in knowledge or attitude.

* A father’s ability to successfully implement a new parenting strategy is much more impactful than the father’s report that his “parenting knowledge has increased.”

* Making better food choices and lowering BMI in an 8 year old is more impactful than the child knowing that an apple is healthier than potato chips.

Some data points/outcomes are more robust than others for their ability to impact the long-term trajectory of people’s lives, like:

* Being able to demonstrate higher math and reading levels in school-aged children

* Keeping kids out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems

* Preventing multiple foster care placements

Yes, evaluation can be expensive and divert limited resources away from the services provided, but there is a continuum of evaluation activities.

* There are low-cost, feasible, easily testable things organizations can do to incorporate measurements into their routine. For example, I once worked with a Rape Crisis Program that asked their hotline callers to rate their anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 at the beginning of the call. At the end of the call, they asked them to rate it again.

* Simplify. Organizations should look at what data they collect now and if they don’t use it to judge or improve their impact, they should consider not collecting it. It’s an inefficient use of resources to collect it for no reason, and it’s not fair to participants to solicit information from them – often personal – that is not used. If the information is only collected to satisfy a funder, they should ask the funder how they use it.

* Dig down deep enough to collect meaningful information. If the organization “puts people to work!” the organization should be able to tell donors:

o How many people were put to work and how and whether people were unemployed or underemployed when they came into the organization

o Whether they secured part or full time work with or without benefits

o What their wages were

o How long they stay employed

Finally, listen to the data

* Organizations collecting the right data start seeing what makes a difference. They can isolate factors or combinations of factors that make the most or least impact and adjust their programs accordingly. This data can be tremendously gratifying to the hard-working staff because it provides specific feedback about the difference they are making.

In a great book, Uncommon Service, by Harvard professor Frances Frei, the author contends that business as well as non-profit organizations can’t be good at everything and should figure out what they are good at and stop doing what they aren’t good at. Understanding what you’re good at starts with the right data.

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