A Consumers Union for Social Services?

In response to a comment on the subject of “pay for performance in  the social services” I suggested that rather than have government workers police the cost  of outcomes, it would be useful to form a Social Services Consumers Union to test the quality of social services, similar to the way Consumers Union tests automobiles, toasters, insurance plans and such.

If we, in our roles as consumers of social services undertook to spell out the criteria against which social services should be tested, we could then test various providers, report out the results, and  pay for their services accordingly.

If you want a thorough evaluation of dish-washing soaps,  BBQ sauce, mowers and tractors, and telecom bundling services, you will learn a fascinating amount  about how well various products and brands work, the criteria on which they test these products, what earns a failing or passing grade, and what wins their recommendations. Consumers Union practically invented transparency in the commercial sector.  The Union’s magazine, Consumer Reports, has consistently produced highly readable and informative consumer-oriented reports for decades.

Call me a professional evaluator, but I have enjoyed Consumer Reports forever, and cite it in evaluation workshops and consultations.

I have also appreciated its mission: “Consumers Union is an expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves.” Earning the Consumer Reports Best Buy recommendation means something to consumers and producers alike.

Wouldn’t it be fun – fun being a big incentive these days — to extend the Consumers Union model into the philanthropic worlds of charity, development, and justice?  Wearing our consumer hats, we  could impartially and rigorously “test” our neighborhood soup kitchen, for example, and compare them with others.  We could do the same with our nearby job training and employment service.  And our state coalition for (or against) our favorite cause.

And what would our magazine look like? This theme obviously links up with our Dashboards discussion, the Making a Difference theme, as well as this blog’s  underlying currents of Philanthropy, Evaluation, and Justice.


Steven E. Mayer / originally published June 2, 2011 as “A Consumers Union for Philanthropy”/ lightly revised November 21, 2019