Does measuring measure up?

Increased scrutiny of fundraising programs and the desire to hold nonprofits accountable is great, but does Charity Intelligence Canada’s recent exposé contribute anything useful?

Finger-wagging at organizations with nice offices and large administrative staffs, or at organizations that don’t answer questionnaires isn’t helpful. I’m all for transparency, just the right kind.  In general, I find this kind of bean-counting misleading and counterproductive.

Click here to read the article published in the Toronto Star on November 16–audit-of-charities-encounters-resistancere

I wonder if Jim Collins’ 2005 essay Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great is still available – a great piece in which he debunks the prevailing belief (among those pushing for standard measurements) that nonprofits are “in desperate need of greater discipline.”  Collins believes “many widely practiced business norms turn out to correlate with mediocrity, not greatness.  So, then, why would we want to import the practices of mediocrity into the social sectors?”

“We need to reject the naïve imposition of the ‘language of business’ on the social sectors” — Jim Collins

Nonprofit performance can be measured, says Collins, but “what matters is not finding the perfect indicator, but settling upon a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results.”  The basic idea Collins promotes is being “accountable for progress in outputs, even if those outputs defy measurement.”  Regardless of one’s fiscal orientation, a great organization, says Collins, “is one that delivers superior performance and makes a distinctive impact over a long period of time.”

Donors do want to know their funds are being used wisely; rightly so. Nonprofits do need to build a sense of trust that they are actually achieving their missions. And that’s what people really need to know: Are they doing their job?  The so-called “business intelligence,” with its focus on administrative costs, isn’t getting that message out.  Unfortunately, most nonprofits don’t tell their story effectively enough to persuade people that they are achieving their mission – and that donations are being used wisely.

By not telling their stories they can’t build trust. And that’s the real problem.  The prevailing characteristic of most nonprofits is expecting people understand who they are, and expecting those audiences will support their work.  Or expecting a media outlet will want to tell their story (measuring the number of “mentions” has never been my idea of a meaningful yardstick). Development teams would rather just organize events or “ask” for money (or, considering some organizations’ guerilla fundraising tactics, shake people down).  There simply isn’t much focus on telling identity-building stories that build the trust these organizations need to demonstrate their success.

Nonprofits need to work harder to ensure donors don’t see their organizations as black holes.  To establish a sense of belief that donors’ dollars will be well-spent, nonprofits need to focus on effectively engaging the public; effective branding that connects people to the organizations unique ideas. To effectively build trust, and demonstrate that nonprofits are relevant and worthy of support, organizations have to think harder about outreach through content development. Mission-connecting communication that highlights unique knowledge will be the key enabler in the in the effort to demonstrate relevance, build trust, and achieve fundraising goals.  Leverage what you know to create compelling, inspiring objects that build trust and sustain long-term relationships that result in sustainable giving.


Relevant reading from the Contrabrand archives:


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