Why this book
I began this project by asking the Google, “How can I change the world and make a million bucks by selling e-books.”
The Google told me, “What sells is Sex, Love, Power, and Money – not necessarily in that order. Write lots and lots of short posts and use those keywords often. As for changing the world, you’re on your own.”
I saw immediately that “The Effective Nonprofit,” or “Using Philanthropy to Achieve Your Goals,” or even “Nonprofit Program Development and Evaluation” weren’t going to cut it.
I spent some time cruising the Internet, looking at popular sites, not the professional ones but the ones you can get to from almost any news or entertainment outlet. “Clickbait.”
A few fever dreams later, I came up with this:
How to Show Off Your Wicked Strong Sexy and Incredibly Effective Nonprofit
…while attracting the supporters, funders, and partners you’ve always wanted
…while being the change you want to see
…and moving that needle you’ve bragged about moving (the one in your mission statement!)
…and demonstrating your effectiveness to key stakeholders
All at the same time!
Why YOU need this book to help change the world, especially if you’re an activist, underpaid nonprofit employee, grantmaker, or socially-concerned evaluator.
Why this book now?
There’s a lot going on that makes this book timely.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but the world seems to be in a tough place right now. That’s the feeling one can easily get just plugging into any media – or walking or riding anywhere within 100 miles in any direction. And there’s a feeling of desperation in the air – and more than just a feeling, for that matter. “Whatever happened to hope?” one hears.
At the same time, there’s a lot of good going on too. You can see that in the media too, and everywhere in real life. Many individuals and organizations are engaged in constructive ways, looking to build effective responses with the resources and talents at hand. Contributions of time, skills, and money are pouring into efforts small and large, near and far. These contributions are of course based in hope – hope that contributing in sustained and focused ways can “make a difference” to the well–being of those we care about.
There are many ways to contribute, but the focus on this book is on those kinds of efforts organized around a stated mission to do good. Not just to “do good” generally, but to “do good” in ways intended to benefit individuals and their communities. And if not by contributing to them directly, by contributing to organizations and systems meant to support them and strengthen their chances productive and meaningful lives.
This is the work of nonprofit organizations and grantmaking foundations. Together they’re sometimes known as the independent sector – as distinct and independent, allegedly, of the public sector and the private sector.
There’s growing awareness of growing dysfunction in many areas of society, and of the apparent inability of public institutions to keep up. There’s also growing awareness that the private sector, as good as it is in creating levels of wealth, also contributes a great deal to high levels of poverty, poor health, and poor prospects for improved quality of life. The American public seems to keep investing hope that the work of the “independent sector” – not the public and not the private – will contribute to progress, but some evidence would certainly help.
But the effectiveness of these organizations is a very hot topic
The effectiveness of these organizations is a very hot topic, and sorry to say, it’s been hot for a long time. While money is pouring into the sector, it’s spread very thin among a growing number of nonprofits; it’s a rare nonprofit that feels adequately funded.
One of the biggest challenges that nonprofits face is to demonstrate their effectiveness to the satisfaction of those demanding proof – funders, donors, and investors of all kinds, large and small, individual and institutional. Less demanding but still curious are those inclined to be supportive of the work of a particular nonprofit, who would like to know what good results from their support. Even the most hopeful like some assurance they’re part of the solution.
Problem #1 – “Demonstrating effectiveness” isn’t part of hardly anyone’s skill set. Serving up “proof” is not what people who choose work in nonprofit organizations signed up for. Doctors, scientists, and lawyers train for years in the arcane rules of providing proof. But nonprofit staff and their governing boards want to help, now, not document stuff.
Problem #2 – People asking for proof each come from hugely different perspectives, whether well–intentioned or well–informed or not, so what’s experienced is a cacophony of insistent and somewhat mysterious demands, rather than a simple supportive inquiry. “How’s it going?” shouldn’t be such a difficult question.
Problem #3: There’s a lot riding on decent answers. It’s not unreasonable to ask how our nonprofits are doing, so that we can be more informed in how to support them. Huge dollars have been distributed to nonprofits in hopes they’ll do some good, that they’ll deliver. It’s not unreasonable for nonprofits to tell us how they’re making progress on their mission, how they’re benefiting the folks they’re intending to benefit.
Purposes and uses of this book
I’m suggesting that nonprofits are severely challenged in producing evidence of their effectiveness in ways that are acceptable to their supporters. Each chapter in this book intends to be responsive – to help nonprofits upgrade and communicate their effectiveness. I see this book being useful to these audiences:
Nonprofit staff and Board of nonprofit organizations are charged with making progress against their mission, and with being able to show it. Making progress against the mission means managing all those functions of the organization (administration, program operations, resource development, community connections) in ways that the organization’s intended beneficiaries do benefit in the ways intended. My hope is the perspectives and lessons in this book will help you to:
Find and present evidence that can make a case for your programs’ effectiveness, based on making progress against mission, that your intended beneficiaries are benefiting in the ways intended – and ideally, that not too many are hurt in the process.
Discover and communicate your programs’ strengths as well as their “opportunities for improvement” to those inside and outside the organization in position to help.
Connect “evaluation thinking” to “development thinking,” to raise the resources useful for strengthening your organization’s approach to mission success.
Program staff and Board in grantmaking foundations, who are faced with big decisions affecting the likelihood of success down the line: nonprofit organizations, the communities in which these nonprofits give and get support, and the intended beneficiaries of these nonprofits. Choices made by grantmakers also shape the forward progress of effectiveness or their own institutions. I hope the perspectives in this book will help you to:
- Review grant requests and craft grants that can help nonprofits make greater progress with their missions.
- Communicate to your directors the progress being made by the nonprofits you support.
- Support partnerships among your stakeholders that improve strategies for addressing community problems or opportunities.
Activists of all kinds, including volunteers, individual donors, and advocates all want their actions and donations “to make a difference.” They presumably also want to make their choices to be based on at least some kind of plausible evidence of effectiveness. That’s not to speak against choices made on gut instinct or intuition, which have a role, but to speak also for grounded, evidence–based decision–making. This book can help you to:
- Inform your ability to advance causes or organizations you’re inclined to care about with investments of your time, talent, and treasure.
- Advocate with more knowledge and understanding the interests of people or programs.
- Translate your interests into more informed action.
Evaluators and evaluation students
Evaluators who work outside or inside a nonprofit or philanthropic organization, and students of the practice, can find material here that should support their interests. Evaluators who’ll find this book especially useful are those inclined to look for opportunities to raise critical questions about a program’s effectiveness, search for evidence that provides useful answers, and create opportunities to help nonprofits or foundations reach the next level of effectiveness. Hopefully the points made in this book will help you to:
- Expand or focus your inquiries in ways that reveal information useful to advancing the organization’s progress in its quest to improve its value to its intended beneficiaries.
- Work with (rather than against) the interests of the organization and its stakeholders in mind. (Hint: you’re allowed to choose programs or organizations you’d like to help succeed.)
- Provide productive advice that can increase the organization’s viability and its accountability to stakeholders.
I say “we” a lot in this book to show common cause with each of these audiences. My goal is to help all of you improve your skill set in this important work. As suggested in the title, I want to help you keep your nonprofit mission–focused so it can deliver the goods and show off its progress to garner more support to create even more impact!
Since beginning my own practice in nonprofit program evaluation and organizational development, first with Rainbow Research, Inc and then with the Effective Communities Project (ECP), I’ve worked with probably hundreds of different nonprofit and philanthropic organizations working in a variety of arenas, all over the United States and beyond.
Much of the tangible fruit of this effort, along with a brief bio, is shown on ECP’s website, which intends to be a platform for helping practitioners in this sector upgrade their skills. The website is done as a magazine, with feature articles illuminating different elements of nonprofit and philanthropic lore, now cast for the same four audiences I hope for this book, along with the free downloadable original publication.
Readers of this book will quickly become aware this is not a textbook in the traditional sense. It’s not an accumulation of knowledge from The Field. You’ll find few bibliographic citations to others’ work. In fact, it’s based pretty much entirely on my own work, done over a career’s worth of effort.
This book is a career capstone project, where I attempt to distill and pull together in one place the lessons learned in discovering the “secrets” of nonprofit effectiveness, as revealed by varieties of the program evaluation organizational development art form –– all intending to be useful. It’s all from my perspective on what good evaluation practice can look like (analytical and evidence–based), informed by plentiful experience and excellent training. And it’s from my Quixotic drive that I lovingly call it “DaBook.”
For the Table of Contents, click here. We plan to release chapters when they’re ready. So far, that’s Chapter 1, The Untold Story of Who Benefits From Nonprofit Programs, which is probably the most important. And best so far.