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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