How the concept of effectiveness has screwed nonprofits and the people we serve


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Hi everyone. Before we delve into today’s very serious topic, a quick announcement. January 12th is International Nonprofit Karaoke Throwdown Day! Here’s a blog post I wrote on why staff and boards of different nonprofits need to hang out more. Find a nonprofit or two in your area and challenge them to a #NonprofitKaraokeThrowdown. Here, I even crafted an invitation email for you:

“Hey [org(s)], Nonprofit AF has declared January 12th to be International Nonprofit Karaoke Throwdown Day, so we at [your org] challenge your staff and board to a singing contest. This is It, we’ll be Right Here Waiting for You, and Chances Are, You’re Going Down. Sorry Not Sorry.”

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about effectiveness. Last week, Kathleen Enright, the CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) wrote this thought-provoking article. Here’s an excerpt:

“[The] work to define effectiveness has typically come from white organizations – prominent consulting firms, think tanks, universities, philanthropy and management support organizations. These institutions – and I count GEO among them – have advanced ideas about effectiveness that have unwittingly perpetuated or even exacerbated inequity in the nonprofit sector.”

Thank you, Kathleen and GEO, for bringing this up. This is a serious issue, but we don’t talk much about it. I’ve been thinking about it, and your article helped to solidify a few thoughts.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to share the nonprofit perspective to a group of funders. As usual, I stressed the importance of general operating funds, using the firefighter metaphor to demonstrate the ridiculousness and danger of restricted funds (“Um, I want to make sure the money I gave you to fight this fire is paying for the water, and not the hose. What is your hose-to-water ratio?”). I also mentioned how funding practices have been screwing organizations led by marginalized communities, even as the philanthropic community talks a good game about equity.

A program officer approached me afterwards and said that his organization does provide gen-op support, but they are concerned about whether these investments are effective. “When the bread tastes bad, people stop buying it,” he said. Fair enough. No one likes stale bread. Foundations don’t like giving money to ineffective organizations, and they shouldn’t have to. But as Kathleen says, effectiveness has been defined mainly by white organizations, and because #EffectivenessSoWhite, it has a whole bunch of flaws and causes a lot of problems:

It ignores the voices of the people most affected by injustice: Who made large, mainstream foundations and think tanks the arbiters of breadstaleness? What’s stale and sour to you, because that’s your experience, may just be sourdough to other people. What if your definition of a mentorship program’s effectiveness is “the number of mentees who graduate from high school” but when you ask community members and kids what is the best thing about the program, they say they’re happier. Would we be satisfied with accepting “happiness” as a measure of effectiveness? According to the countless hours we nonprofits spend revising logic models to fit funders’ agendas, the answer is usually no.

It uses flawed concepts of data and evaluation: To see if something is effective, we use data and evaluation. But as my colleague Jondou Chen points out, and I wrote about, so much of data has been a club with which to beat marginalized communities. Data must conform to mainstream accepted principles—defined usually by well-meaning white evaluators—to be considered credible. A hundred community members’ lived-experience recounted through anecdotes and other qualitative methods is often dismissed as poor data, whereas a “white paper” is accepted as valid. And then there’s the Data-Resource Paradox, where you need money to get good data, but no one would give you money unless you have good data. 

It minimizes complexity: Nonprofits are not “baking bread;” we are doing something way more difficult. We are dealing with complex issues with multiple confounding variables, yet the concept of effectiveness forces us to isolate our work into clear-cut elements, which means we miss out on the holistic view needed to solve these problems. Let’s say a photography program for low-income kids measures changes in the kids’ academic performance as well as several indicators of “soft” skills like teamwork and creativity. To count in the evaluation, kids must attend at least 50% of program hours. Well, what about the kids who attend only 25%? 10%? What if they benefit significantly and we have no idea because we don’t measure them? What about the aggregated effects of several other organizations’ support?

It is short-term-focused: What if the kids we measure don’t show any improvement in the short-term, thus the program is considered ineffective, but in the long-run they greatly benefit? Or the reverse: What if our programs seem “effective” right now but may cause great harm to people several years from now? What funders are willing to pay for these longitudinal studies across several years? Very few, since the dominant view has a bias toward what is instantly measurable, so “effectiveness” is best about short-term impact.

It punishes failure, and rewards risk-aversion: Being short-term focused, the current model of effectiveness rewards nonprofits for not taking risks. To fail in the short run is to be deemed ineffective and to lose funding and support, no matter how the lessons learned through this failure may help address the problem in the long run. This is bad for the entire sector, because without risks and failures and the mutual sharing of key lessons gained through them, our field cannot advance. As a colleague mentions in the comment section, we also need to know what doesn’t work. 

It uses harmful proxies for quality: The combination of the complexity of the issues we face and the need for instant feedback on “effectiveness” results in reliance on a variety of metrics that not only are useless, but have been harmful to our work. The archaic concept of “overhead” is an example. Despite the countless articles and counterarguments, organizations with lower “overhead” are still often deemed more “effective” than those with higher rates, as if paying less for rent and staff development is somehow correlated with greater efficacy of programs. “Sustainability,” an equally outdated and problematic philosophy, is another proxy used to judge and punish organizations.

It ignores the intrinsic worth of individuals: So much of “effectiveness” I’ve seen over the years is ultimately about the benefits to society. This is why all of us have been trained to say things like “This photography program is effective, because it helps kids graduate from school, and that prevents them from joining gangs and committing crimes” or “This senior home visit program is effective because lonely seniors are more likely to have accidents, which costs taxpayers in emergency room expenses.” This is an individualistic, Western, utilitarian concept of effectiveness that runs counter to the philosophies of many of the communities we are serving. Our sector above all others must deeply believe that we help people because everyone is intrinsically valuable, regardless of their value to society.

It favors larger, mostly-white-led organizations: As Kathleen states so well (even though it’s missing the Oxford Comma): “Nonprofits deemed ‘effective’ are often those most skilled at navigating the thicket of hurdles, requirements and processes put in place by philanthropy. This perpetuates a cycle in which large, well-resourced organizations amass capital while smaller ones – including many working at the community level and led by people of color – struggle for resources. And consequently are often deemed less ‘effective.’” While these organizations do important work, the bias towards them disincentives them to change and leaves out small, grassroots orgs led by communities. 

Our sector’s current concept of effectiveness is simplistic, short-sighted, and ignores the values and perspectives of communities most affected by the issues we are working to solve. And yet it is used as an “objective” way to allocate funding and influence. This is extremely dangerous, helping to further the very inequity we are trying to fight.

So what’s the alternative? There are no simple solutions—and again, the need for simple solutions is a symptom of the problem. We need to shift our philosophies and mindsets, and this won’t be easy. But if our field to advance and solve society’s most intractable problems, we have no choice. Here are five things that are necessary for us to start, building on Kathleen’s suggestions:

First, we must ground “effectiveness” on race, equity, and social justice: While different areas of our sector talk about these issues, the definition of what is effective is still very much governed by white, dominant principles. It is still about who writes the best proposal, has the most stable budgets, articulates the clearest in quantitative measures, etc. We need to center the definition of quality and effectiveness on race, equity, and social justice. All organizations, including foundations, to be considered effective, must be able to demonstrate how their work is addressing systemic injustice, inequity, racial oppression. They must also ensure that the WAY they go about their work is grounded in these principles. For example, are they paying their staff living wages or plan to? Are they using an equity lens in hiring people? Are their boards and staff having conversations about race, class, indigenous rights, transgender identity, disability, etc? Can an organization really be considered effective if it doesn’t do these things?

Second, we must see Representation as essential to effectiveness: Whether an organization reflects the people it serves is one of the most critical elements of this work, and we talk about it a lot, but still treat it like an afterthought in practice. Foundations see a strong written grant proposal as a requirement, but a diverse board and staff is a bonus. A proposal will get rejected for not having a strong budget, but how often does a foundation reject an application because 90% of the staff and board members are white but the org’s clients are mostly POC? Or mostly men when serving mostly women? This has to be reversed. It does not matter how well an organization can speak the language, write the logic model, tailor the budget, etc. If its board and staff do not reflect the people most affected by injustice, this is a serious concern regarding its long-term effectiveness. There are always exceptions and extenuating circumstances, but representation can no longer be a nice-to-have in our sector; it must be one of the most important criteria for how funds are allocated and how effectiveness is determined. 

Third, we must trust the people most affected to define effectiveness: The people who have to eat the bread every day are the best judges of whether the bread “tastes bad” or not. Let’s ASK the people who benefit from nonprofits’ work if they think programs and services are effective and then TRUST their opinions. We have to stop this paternalistic, infantilizing attitude that the people most affected by injustice don’t know what’s good for them. And we need to respect community members’ opinions when they share them in ways that do not fit our formal, quantitative narratives and frameworks.

Fourth, we must invest in organizations holistically: I wrote in “Progressive funders, you may be part of the problem” about progressive foundations’ penchant for investing in short-term, single-issue initiatives, and for doing so with severe mistrust and restrictions. Ironically, the quest for “effectiveness” is one of the most damaging things to nonprofit effectiveness. In seeking short-term program “effectiveness,” funders, and thus all of us, become risk-averse and sacrifice organizational capacity and thus long-term success. Invest in organizations’ long-term success through multi-year, general operating funds, not short-term results through one-time restricted grants.

Fifth, we must consider the entire sector when measuring effectiveness: Let’s stop treating an organization’s effectiveness as if it’s the result of only that org’s work. All of our work is interconnected. Our community members are not just benefiting from our programs and nothing else, yet we continue these Nonprofit Hunger Games, with effectiveness as one more weapon to use against one another. We all need to understand, appreciate, and give credit to one another for our results, and funders can help in this by asking nonprofits to credit their partnerships and collaborations when assessing effectiveness. 

I know these are all tall orders. But the mainstream definition of and practices around effectiveness have been causing a lot of harm to nonprofits and the people we serve, and we need to rethink it.

Last week, the Vancouver Foundation asked me to come up and share with the board and program staff my perspective on the sector. We had a great conversation about race and equity and the Community Alliance model my organization is working on. Afterward, I mentioned International Nonprofit Karaoke Showdown Day to my colleague Vi Nguyen, but lamented the fact that I actually sound like some sort of dying weasel when I sing. Vi said, to paraphrase, “That’s the whole point of karaoke. In fact, people who sing well get on everyone’s nerves. And they get annoyed by people who don’t sing well. Karaoke is not about who sings the best.”

This is a good lesson on effectiveness. If we measure the “effectiveness” of a karaoke session by the singing, then we miss out on capturing the camaraderie, community-building, friendships, memories, and other benefits that extend beyond the beer-fueled sessions. Unfortunately, this is how our sector has been thinking about nonprofit effectiveness, and it leaves out so many critical voices and renders us less effective. That needs to change, if we hope to make actual progress on the issues we’re working on. 

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19 thoughts on “How the concept of effectiveness has screwed nonprofits and the people we serve

  1. Lauren

    Hi Vu! First, I need to say how much I enjoy your posts. I’ve been reading them for over a year now and think the nonprofit sector is better because of your voice. I was really interested in this post because I struggle with the term ‘effectiveness’ too. I like the idea of evaluating nonprofits on how well their staff reflects the type of people they serve and whether or not their work makes people happy. But at the end of the day, there are limited resources. A funder can’t fund every nonprofit that does great work. They need, and deserve, some way to see how much happiness they can get for their money. Isn’t looking at something like high school graduation rates (when measured accurately and taking into account as many positive externalities of the nonprofit’s work as possible) an acceptable way to look at the overall impact of a nonprofit’s work? Please tell me if I’m wrong. I really do want to understand this issue better!

    1. verucaamish

      As a funder myself, I’ve been lucky that my projects have an outcome of learning. If a project we’ve funded is challenged to make their deliverables we don’t see it as a failure. We as a sector need to know what DOESN’T work as much as we need to know what does work. The challenge with the high school graduation rate example is that those things are what are sexy NOW to funders and media. We funded a research project to see the impacts of a school intervention. We looked at test scores, dropout rates and behavior issues, along with measures of effectiveness on whether the intervention was going to do what it was designed to do. We had an initial disappointment that none of the sexy outcomes were achieved but had to hold ourselves accountable to our expectations. That intervention was never designed to do that.

    2. Vu Le

      Lauren, there is nothing inherently wrong with high school graduation as a metric. The problem is that that may be the only metric funders accept, or it’s a metric that is used when it makes no sense, or when communities explicitly state that is not the metric that is meaningful to them.

      1. Lauren

        Thanks for the response, Vu. Yes, a single metric is absolutely inappropriate for a program not designed to address it. I guess what I struggle with is just the idea that projects should be funded because they are inherently ‘good work’ and bring happiness. I’m all for good work and happiness (who wouldn’t be??) but funders don’t have infinite resources and they do need to choose. Imposing some sort of metrics seems reasonable, and it sounds like you’re suggesting the funder and organizations come up with those together. Definitely something to think about. Thanks again!

  2. David Tucker

    Well said, as usual, Vu! I’d also add that the focus on ‘measurable effectiveness’ alone means that instead of looking for and valuing CEOs who are leaders who can inspire us, we look for and value CEOs who are managers who can perform the logic model-fueled gyrations needed to please funding sources.

  3. Kathy Evans CEO/CE

    I can’t tell you how much I connect and resonate with this blog!! Thank you so much for breaking down so clearly the systemic tangle we’ve got ourselves into (I write from and work in the English voluntary sector, but everything you describe here is exactly as we’re experiencing in the UK too)

    I published this essay back in 2014 (ignore the publishing date on the webpage – that’s when it trasnferred to our new website!). It doesn’t unpick the effectiveness mantra as you do, but I hope you might recognise it as being a kindred spirit critique of the monetised managerialism that has distorted our sector…..

    Thanks again for this blog – it’s so reassuring to read someone put eloquent words to a problem experienced every day, but rarely confronted!



    As always, this is a great and thought provoking post. The intrinsic value of the individual is something we deal with in the disability community..your post is a good reminder to me not to buy into the ablelist definition of effectiveness (we are only worth it if we save the taxpayers money) and that advocacy for supports and funds to support us to stay alive is somehow not enough. It is way too easy to buy into abusive mindsets when one is always under attack. Sometimes whole communities can buy into and internalize this kind of oppression when we are told by the mainstream organizations, media, etc., how we are less than. We need to challenge these ideals internally and externally. THANK YOU as always for the thoughtful post. As far as singing goes….when my kids were young and misbehaving my threat to sing always got them in line very quickly.

  5. John Mulvey

    Lot’s of really good points here. I want to add that even more than “who writes the best proposal, ha[s] the most stable budgets, articulate[s] the clearest in quantitative measures, etc.” it’s who has the relationships with the foundation’s executives and program officers. Especially now, as we see more foundations not accepting unsolicited proposals. This leaves anyone outside the philanthropic power structure pretty much out in the cold.

    I also really appreciate when Vu writes “we are not baking bread;’ we are doing something way more difficult. We are dealing with complex issues with multiple confounding variables…” It is dangerous to rely on mathematical formulas to assess our organizations’ results, because our impacts are much more nuanced and have value beyond what can be seen by data collection and manipulation.

  6. Larry Kaplan

    Excellent perspective — there is much work to be done to change the way institutional foundations operate. But I will once again risk sounding like a broken record (something you have a tendency to do, as well), and stress the importance of diversifying funding sources for locally-based social justice charities in communities of color.

    That means getting off the foundation hamster wheel and developing an individual donor fundraising program to supplement your revenues. And before you tell me that communities of color don’t have the resources to support locally-based social justice charities, take heart from this example:

    I’ve watched this group grow and flourish here in LA. It’s not easy, and community-based social justice charities have built-in headwinds that they must overcome, but it begins with adopting a culture of fundraising.

    1. Vu Le

      Larry, I agree that all organizations should be working on individual donations strategies, and I have great respect for GIFT, and I read the article you referenced. But who is the “you” that people are talking about when they say “you should reach make the asks; you should thank donors; you should train your board in fundraising; you should diversify funding; you should adopt a culture of fundraising”? These things take staff (and other resources, like a CRM) to do. Who is going to do them? Volunteers? Who is going to manage these volunteers? You know as well as I do that it takes years of relationship cultivation before it actually breaks even. Again, we should still work on it, but foundations have a responsibility to help grassroots org reach that point where they can have a strong individual donors strategy.

      1. Larry Kaplan

        I agree — it’s not easy and it takes a long time to show measurable results. But it’s possible, as CHIRLA and other similar organizations have proven. I think the first obstacle is not lack of resources, but the resistance to going beyond your comfort zone to embrace a culture of fundraising. That means rejecting the idea that you are merely a supplicant asking for money, but that you are giving donors an opportunity to embrace and engage their passions (and as the CHIRLA example illustrates, that can start small with modest goals in your own constituency).

        Today, it has a lot to do with Rage Fundraising — people who want to join the anti-Trump Resistance, and who would be energized by supporting progressive charities. It ranges from people who can give five bucks to five thousand. Institutional foundations, being risk-adverse and slow to respond to changing times, are much less likely to step up in this time of urgent need, although a few of the more progressive ones are starting to get it. In short, it has to begin with a commitment to give it a shot, even with a modest investment of time and energy. I advise people to start small and build upon it over time.

  7. Joyce Lee-Ibarra

    Preach it, Vu! As an evaluation consultant to nonprofits, I’m often working to bridge the gap between funders and grantees around the expectations and realities of “effectiveness” for both groups. The political and social climate over the past year has underscored for me the importance of the many points you make, and in particular that we as a sector cannot in good conscience talk about evaluation without making diversity, equity, and power dynamics explicit and core components of those conversations. People exist and operate (as you note) in enormous complexity, and to narrowly define benefits to people and communities in purely quantitative terms or by seeking “returns on investment” diminishes their humanity.

    Thank you for sharing Kathleen Enright’s article; I’ve found GEO to be a terrific and much-needed funder voice in this conversation. I recently encountered a resource from Monitor Institute titled, “Reimagining Measurement: A better future for monitoring, evaluation, and learning.” In it, the authors note that one of the three characteristics of a better future is *Better empowering constituents and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.* The report is available as a free downloadable pdf for others who may be interested:

  8. Nicole Robinson

    Right on! Our Wisconsin evaluation affiliate, Milwaukee Evaluation! Inc. (see just led a session in October offering a very similar message (video will be out soon). In it we argue that “evidence-based” and “data-driven” initiatives have perversions of our craft because these initiatives only count certain data and only certain people can create data and generate knowledge. That is one of the hallmarks of oppression – someone else has to validate your experience for you in order for it to count. For the past several years we’ve been working with evaluators to shift the culture around evaluation, encourage more evaluators of color and evaluators with lived experiences to join the profession, create healthy spaces for them to stay in the profession, and are just beginning the work to engage funders to support evaluations that shift power to the community. This blog is an important critique of the status quo.

  9. Abigail Soto

    Reminds me of a course I took on feminist research methodology. Since the beginning of time women’s lived experience- our qualitative research- has been discounted. This is why I love Brene Brown so much. She has really opened up the public eye to the concept of grounded theory research and its value. Have you noticed she quotes bell hooks a lot too? Too bad it took a white woman to make this research style so popular. hooks has been preaching it for so much longer. But, no, we can’t listen to people of color. They don’t really know what they are experiencing. *eye roll*

  10. Ellen Bass

    Hey Vu, thanks for always promoting good things for nonprofits, our neighbors, and communities, including leadership of color, unrestricted grants, multi-year funding, and an admin rate we can survive with. Hearty support from me for all your concerns about how we have defined effectiveness and all your recommendations.

    Here is yet another concern about how our current definition of effectiveness misses the mark: It ignores context. Meaning, what are the strengths and assets of this particular group of people living in this particular community, and what are the challenges and inequities they face, that they want help with from our nonprofit? We can root our missions — both nonprofits and funders — in a clear commitment to a specific group of people and their community, and build our theory of change on a clear understanding of who they are, what their goals and assets are, and what they want from us. To me, this is where nonprofit effectiveness begins. It requires commitment to your people first, and deep, ongoing listening and relationship all around.

    Which i think is where you were going with the karaoke challenge. In that spirit, I sense you don’t really like logic models that much. If you ever come to Boston, I challenge you and your team to a logic model throwdown contest for one hour. If after that hour you still don’t like them, you win. If i can change your heart about them after an hour, I win. What do you say?

  11. Paul Bakker

    Challenging read. I am all for the concept of funding effective organizations, and do think that the views of those served, while very important, is not always the best judgement. People and communities of all kinds do not always know what is good for them. People have a natural tendency to interpret data to confirm the views they want to believe. Sometimes people say something works because they want to appease someone in a position of power. So, I am not ready to dismiss the value that a good evaluator can bring to effort to assess effectiveness.

    A lot of your other points about how the system of evaluation and funding can perpetuate inequities are valid, especially around failing to account for context. A 50% increase in a community with greater challenges is not the same as 50% in a community with less. If we are serious about equity, we should be willing to spend more for fewer outcomes when serving the most disadvantaged groups. Unfortunately, funders can get caught up in wanting to fund initiatives with the highest SROI, rather than serve those most in need.

    Many in the field of evaluation are trying to solve the issues you bring up. I encourage you to look into newer developments in evaluation i.e. principles-focused evaluation, developmental evaluation, collective impact evaluation. Also, look into empowerment evaluation.

  12. Mavis Finnamore

    This type of charity behaviour also appears in government offices. A few years ago, I did an assessment of my province’s social sevices review that was currently taking place. I was a volunteer with an organization that focused on issues for disabled persons on limited government pensions. When I dug into the data, what became apparent was the fact that very few disabled people were actually contacted to comment on the type and amount of services they received. Instead the bulk of people consulted were those “experts in the field”, other government officials, and private firms providing services to the disabled, as well as some paid care givers. There did seem to be an assumption the disabled were somehow not capable of making good assessments, or at least it would be difficult to get to them and get appropriate answers. What this review was really about, was a bureaucratic move to consolidate and reduce services, and the clients were mostly left in the dark. It’s one reason my association, ACORN, decided to form a committee to study issues affecting disabled and other low income pensioners, and help lobby for better services.
    With regards to measurement of effectiveness, I had a friend with mental issues inform me the provincial government measured success simply by how many people came through the door. They were all pushed into simple computer classes and after a few weeks, given a short term job of data entry. At the beginning of the program there was no interest in determining their interests or abilities, other than previous computer use. At the end of the short term job, there was no assessment, follow up, or any attempt to help them get another job. They were back to being adrift. My province, indeed Canada in general, does not offer consistent accessible and affordable mental health care. But because the people went through a government program, they are counted as successes. And those in the program are not consulted .

  13. Caroline Fiennes

    This article seems to be about US philanthropy, even though it doesn’t say that (lots of Americans write in a way that implies they haven’t noticed that other countries really exist). The references to race just don’t translate to all other countries.

    For sure, there are problems with how effectiveness is dealt with. But this article doesn’t deal well with those problems. For example, it’s bizarre to frame those problems as ‘white’ problems: perhaps the foremost org looking at effectiveness of social interventions is JPAL, set up by an Indian guy & a French woman, with funding from a Saudi guy, and now run by another Indian guy. And some of the really interesting work on education in the US (see: we foreigners realise that you exist!) is by Roland Fryer, a black guy.

    Race feels like a cheap crack, frankly.

    There are however real problem, unrelated to race. For instance, people do indeed evaluate interventions on too short a basis. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evaluate: it means that we should evaluate over a sensible time-frame.
    And maybe we do evaluations with outcomes that the intended beneficiaries don’t care about: t hat doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evaluate: rather that evaluators should consult intended beneficiaries about what outcomes matter.

    Evaluation has indeed gone rather wrong – and Ken Berger, formerly of Charity Navigator and I discuss here – but not for the reasons given in this article.

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