Category Archives: non-profit management

Well spent?

Many of us dance between thinking and writing about our work and being the practitioner fully focused on doing the work.  With this dance in mind, I took most of last year off from writing while focused on growing Sou Digna/ I Am Worthy and our partnership with an amazing community of women in Salvador, Brazil.  (I wrote about a previous visit with these women in February 2012.)  In addition, a few of us Seattle-based NGOs have grown the Collaboratory Network, building the capacity and connection of small NGOs working across cultures.  The dance continues, but I am excited to share what I can in between sets.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking with a group of women working to improve the lives of women around the world.  Our topic was “Financial Accountability Across Cultures,” and what follows are the notes that I shared based on my experiences bridging the reality of small NGOs working in poor communities with funders somewhere else in the world.  Am I missing anything?  Please share…


Small NGOs are structured communities trying to address some problem in their society.  Their long term success depends on providing the services needed while building their internal capacity and external connections to deliver those services into the future.  Donors play a critical role in keeping an eye on the long term in the face of tremendous immediate need.

What should you look for in the finances of a small NGO to know if money is well spent?

First, “well spent” is in the eye of the beholder and culture-bound.  It could be interpreted to mean:

  • A lot is happening
  • Financials aligned with budget
  • Audited financials
  • Low percent going to administration

A financially-healthy organization has diverse markers in place.

  • A lot is happening, both tied to impact measures and not.  Remember that a lot of social change happens at the margins of pre-determined programs.
  • Capacity to track financials (staffing, technology)
  • Evaluation plan and practice in place
  • “Clean” reputation of local leader as determined by local people
  • Regular opportunities for exchange across cultures and borders

How do you give an international organization voice in explaining its work within the exchange of financial reports? 

Power and perceptions of power permeate the donor-donee-local partner relationship.

  • Look for ways to have direct conversations (in person, via skype)
  • Keep an eye on partnerships where one side is always speaking for the other side
  • Encourage local voice as a part of grant arrangement
  • Keep power in mind in cases of negative information
  • Put financial reports in perspectve… what matters is impact, not the exact accounting of funds in budgeted line items

How can donors help good organizations become more financially healthy through targeted investments?

Fund the internal infrastructure needed to sustain financial health.

  • Fund the administrative costs tied to financial oversight
  • Fund evaluation of programs
  • Fund capacity building and staff training
  • Fund staff exchanges in both directions

Take a learning approach.

Small NGO Leadership Network is launched

Some of the world’s biggest NGOs were founded by a few dedicated people who “got their dander up and said you can’t push these people back.”

– Dr. Judy Mayotte, Desmond Tutu Foundation

On October 19, 2011, four executive directors, one country director, and five non-profit board members and volunteers, met for nearly two hours to discuss the challenges and opportunities in building a network of small NGO leaders. Discussion covered a range of topics, from the uniqueness of our work to areas where individuals felt that they would like professional development.  We concluded the conversation with unanimous agreement to meet again on a quarterly basis with a focus on both open sharing and specific professional development topics.  We also hope to schedule another set of gatherings open to larger participation with more specific professional development focus.

Framing the conversation

Special guest Dr. Judy Mayotte, long time human rights activist and board member of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, launched our conversation with an inspirational reflection on how some of the biggest NGOs got founded—a few dedicated people who “got their dander up and said you can’t push these people back.” She concluded with the two things needed to succeed in cross-cultural social change work: exquisite listening and partnerships.  She notes that a common thread that links small NGOs is that one story or place inspires the creation of an organization and its mission.  Our role with the partnerships that form is to help implement what they want.

Guiding principles

We shared the three principles that guide our international work that were laid out before the meeting:

  • Relationship-based.  Partnerships are based on a strong relationship with people living and working in the communities of focus.  Concepts of equality are forefront in conversations about cross-border collaborations.
  • Local decision-making.  Areas of focus and programs emerge from the communities being served, as do the leaders who implement these programs.
  • Learning community.  All members of the community have opportunities to reflect and learn from what works and what does not.

We discussed how it is important to have guiding principles—that a commitment to these is what brought people to the meeting.  Participants felt that no further discussion was needed about them.

Some terms used by people used to describe our work:

  • Mutual accountability
  • Partnership with communities
  • No agenda going in
  • Not just about the money
  • Living by the seat of my (our) pants
  • Not about what we want to impose
  • We bring awareness here as much as helping there
  • Bring different frames of reference
  • Our work tends to be founder, board, and partnership driven

We were fortunate to have GambiaHelp country director Essa Camara with us, visiting from The Gambia to support their upcoming fundraising event.  He shared examples of the deep role that culture plays in development.  Respecting the wisdom of the elders is critical in making important decisions, and outsiders remind people of colonialism.  It is critical to have a local person making decisions because only someone from within the culture can know the cultural rules that need to be honored.

Building our capacity

The Executive Directors present expressed their need to have a sounding board, others in similar positions to bounce ideas off of.  They need opportunities both for open sharing and professional development.

Specific topics of interest included:

  • Handling visitors, in some cases bearing gifts
  • Assessment: measuring social change
  • Managing social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.: which technologies really matter?
  • Dealing with failure: creating a safe space for people to share what can’t go into grant reports
  • Working towards obsolescence: supporting partners as they build their capacity and self advocate
  • Sharing great books/articles: building a public bibliography
  • Charity navigators: how important are they?

Small NGOs make a significant impact around the world.  By supporting them, we not only strengthen their ability to help their partners address poverty where they work, we also deepen our communities’ understanding of poverty and effective ways to partner with people as they address their most pressing needs.

Shhh… We may be talking about social change

In my work as a consultant, I often encounter non-profits that seem surprised when I start talking about social change. Social change suggests revolution, taking a blunt knife to a societal problem when all we really need is a scalpel.

Yet more non-profits than we think are working for a permanent solution to some problem rather than a short term fix.  Finding the will to end cancer, making the arts an integrated element in our lives, alleviating poverty, creating sustainable ways to educate our children about the world, and protecting the environment all involve making a permanent change in how our society currently operates.  They all involve some level of social change, or changing the balance of power and money to allow a different way of doing business.

One way to think about the relevance of social change to any non-profit organization is whether that organization’s mission is about changing behavior or about providing something simply nice to have.  On one extreme, you have an organization like Out2Play mentioned in the New York Times story about nonprofits going out of business upon meeting their mission.  Out2Play set out to create 40 playgrounds near housing projects, “nice to have” spaces for children, and then closed shop when they reached that goal.  They weren’t out to change the circumstances that cause children to live in housing projects in the first place.

On the other extreme are poverty alleviation projects that bore down into root causes of hopelessness and address the capacity building that needs to take place so that local people can address their own most pressing problems.  They look at the interwoven complexity of economics, power, and culture and try pull at the threads of education, social support, and fair wage work in order to shift the context in which poor people live.

Between playgrounds and poverty, however, lie a whole lot of other non-profits that are doing important work.  Arts organizations, public affairs institutions, disease awareness and research funds, etc. address aspects of our society that are important for our collective well-being.  Looking at them through a lens of social change challenges us to think deeply about their purpose and whether or not they are about changing long term behavior or simply about adding something nice to have if resources allow.  While few of these non-profits talk in terms of social change, their ability to think in terms of social change may make the difference between surviving and thriving.

Three reasons why more non-profits should think in terms of social change:

1. If you know where you are going, you are more likely to get there.  Buried deep within strategic plans and staff agendas is some notion that begins: “What we really want to happen is….”  A local symphony isn’t just about performing symphonic music for people who buy tickets.  It really wants to expand the role that music plays in the lives of diverse audiences, including those who never otherwise would have been exposed to a symphony.  A public affairs organization isn’t about lectures and meetings.  It really wants to make knowledge about the world a critical aspect of every citizen’s decision-making, thereby building the foundation for a more respectful and peaceful world.  By closing our eyes and thinking big, and we achieve a level of focus that makes more happen.

2. Focusing on society as a whole forces you to expand your community.  Many of these middle ground nonprofits have a certain following that cares about its programs.  Arts organizations have subscribers or patrons; public affairs organizations have people who come to them because they care about world affairs or public policy; disease funds attract individuals with family members affected by that disease.  Once you focus on society as a whole, however, you have unique opportunities to get creative in drawing in sectors of society who never would have bought tickets or seen themselves in your cause.

3. Expanding your view gives you a better case for raising money.  Times are tough, and each and every organization is up against each other for charitable dollars.  As more and more donors direct their dollars to human service organizations both locally and internationally, non-profits outside of human services need to tell their stories in ways that demonstrate how their work builds a foundation for a better world in the long term.  “Nice to have” activities rely on continual charity to keep them running.  “Must haves” must be funded in ways that are sustainable over the long run.

Non-profit leaders are used to living in two worlds, one defined by the reality of raising money from generous donors who have benefited from society as it is, and the other constructed within our imagination, exploring the kind of society or world required in order for our non-profit to declare mission accomplished and need not exist.  Thinking in terms of social change—or deciding not to—allows for critical conversations at all levels of an organization.

Means Justifying the Ends

Development efforts are often portrayed as having one destination: ending poverty.  One need only to read the newspaper to see examples of the diversity of projects with poverty alleviation as their goal: flashlights to midwives in Africa, malaria nets distributed within global malarial zones, microloans in Central America, and education for poor girls in Brazil.  All projects are classified as development, all with aims to make the world a better place for a certain group of people.  New membership organizations work to provide one umbrella under which all of these organizations can stand together in support of more effective and efficient aid and development.  They are fostering greater discussion about the importance of keeping our commitments to the world’s poor.

Implicit in most of these conversations about development is the notion that the end justifies the means.  Feeding starving Haitians is more important than how one goes about procuring the food.  Getting indigenous Hondurans access to capital takes priority over the process of  building capacity that allows local communities to shift the balance of power within their country’s economy.  Implementing a program becomes more important than who implements it, making it good business to send in the ex-pat director rather than invest in local administrators.  For our part, we all want to make the world a better place, so the detail of how we go about doing it comes off as technical minutia in the face of good will.

But as President Obama declared exactly one year ago today, “Our focus on assistance has saved lives in the short term, but it hasn’t always improved those societies over the long term.”   Indeed, I have grown impatient with people as I share aspects of my work, to which they inevitably respond with an explanation how they are helping the poor too by giving money to projects that to my ear reaffirm exactly those notions of charity that save lives in the short term but do nothing to change societies over time.  How do we get broad-based discussion about the relevance of the methods and approaches by which we engage with poor communities around the world?

One way is to create more opportunities for these discussions to take place.  The Social Change Collaboratory is partnering with One Equal Heart Foundation to create a forum for grassroots organizations focused on the how of development.  Our goal is to provide the space in which we can come together and strengthen our network of like-minded NGOs whose work is defined by these characteristics:

  • Relationship-based.  Partnerships are based on a strong relationship with people living and working in the community of focus.  Concepts of equality are forefront in conversations about cross-border collaborations.
  • Local decision-making.  Areas of focus and programs emerge from the communities being served, as do the leaders who implement these programs.
  • Learning community.  All members of the community have opportunities to reflect and learn from what works and what does not.

We want to expand our own learning community and amplify examples of community-driven social change projects.  Over time, we want to use the partnerships that we have with amazing social change leaders around the world to create bridges that bring their voices into on-going conversations about development.  We believe that investing ourselves in understanding the means of social change will result in a world in which more communities have capacity from within to care for their most disadvantaged.

Our first meeting will take place in mid-October in Seattle.  While our focus is on building a community of leaders who are able to meet face-to-face, we welcome information about any organization committed to these characteristics.  I will use future posts to share the results of these gatherings.

Just Like Doraemon

“If this organization were a fairy tale character, it would be Doraemon because it always meets the needs of the people it serves, no matter what that need is.  This organization pulls tools out of its pocket that solve any problem, and it works across generations… just like Doraemon.”

–             International graduate student and board member playing “Organizational Apples to Apples”

[For those of you who don’t know, Doraemon is a cat-like robot Japanese manga character that has a fourth-dimensional pocket out of which he pulls amazing tools and that goes back in time to help a boy solve problems, and along the way teach us about important values.]

At the intersection of social change and non-profit management is the concept of branding, the creation of a consistent public image that draws people into an organization’s work.  I have interacted in different ways with at least five non-profit organizations in the last two weeks, and all of them have recognized the need to better brand what they do in order to expand their impact.  Like with most things in life, resources beget resources as investments in branding yield donations, volunteers, and a bigger community.

I led a second board workshop on branding this past weekend, and it has gotten me thinking about how organizations with activities broad in scope  face unique challenges in branding their work.  Through my own adaptation of Apples to Apples, a kid-friendly party game, I invited participants to dig deeper into their understanding of the organization’s work in order to arrive at the most important adjectives that capture the essence of that organization’s personality and positioning.  (I have put the directions and resources needed for this game here in case you want to play with your own organization.)

Out the these discussions came three trends that pose challenges for small non-profit organizations working in close contact with grassroots communities.

Identity crisis

The first question to arise centers around who is being branded.  Many social change organizations place a community in a poor part of the world central to their work.  We create the space so that they can do their work, and they do or believe (fill in the blank).  Shifting the conversation from “they” to “we” takes discipline because it runs counter to the core belief that we are about them.  The social change activist in all of us pulls us towards blurring the lines between our communities, but that may not benefit in the long-term the community we are trying to help.

“We” is important, because without “we” there might not be a “they,” at least organizationally.  Non-profit leaders need to adopt dual identities around “we collectively” – the “we” that crosses borders—and “we locally” – the we that exists within arms reach.  (I imagine something like the Kwaio language in the Solomon Islands that has words for “we two,” “we few,” and “we many.”)  Branding for “we few” looks different from that of “we many,” and yet it is critical for non-profit funding organizations to set themselves apart from their partners to make the case that they add value to the work of the indigenous project.

“If our organization were a sport, it would either be soccer or a relay race.  Soccer because it is global and can be played on any open field.  A relay race because each individual matters, but in the end it is a team effort passed from one generation of runners to the next.”

In the clouds

Social change organizations have such a broad scope that their branding can lead to vague terms that say little about the impact of their diverse initiatives.  As they implement projects from child nutrition to education to the promotion of human rights, explaining this work in a tagline leads to such pabulum as “we open doors,” “we transform lives,” or “we end poverty.”  Words and phrases like “partnership,” “sustainable,” “transformational,” and “breaking the cycle of poverty” are used by so many groups with such diverse and sometimes incompatible approaches that they have become unhelpful in branding one organization different from another.  Each term begs a definition in order for outsiders to understand how that organization is applying it.

“If our organization were a car, it would be a pick-up truck.  If you have a pick-up truck, you will always have friends, and you can take a lot of people along with you for the ride.”

It’s hard to be the best

The branding process falls into two stages.  The first stage is for an organization to understand its personality—what words, images, or feelings come to mind when people think about your organization.  The second stage is harder because it involves the development of language around that organization’s unique position in context with all of the other organizations doing similar work.  Those involved in the organizational branding need to think in terms of how their organization is the best, most, or only something.

Why is this so hard?  Grassroots activists tend not to be very competitive.  They have created organizations by navigating a political and funding landscape where fitting in matters.  They have built partnerships with other like-minded organizations for inspirational support and guidance.  These leaders tend to approach their work from a humanitarian perspective where being the best at something is not a core value.  And yet within the competition that exists for limited funding support, being unique matters.

“Our organization is the only entrance point in the U.S. for partnership with this group of people in that country.”

 I know many organizations that are just like Doraemon, doing amazing work that touches generations of students, impoverished people, and local community members.  All they need is one of those fourth-dimensional pockets into which they can reach and grab some branding tools that expand their reach into new communities.

For further thought… a book, a website, and some a video boot camp:

With One Equal Heart

In celebration of UN World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development and their recently returned delegation to Chiapas, Mexico, One Equal Heart Foundation is holding an event at Seattle University on Thursday, May 19th.  I appreciate One Equal Heart for giving us an example of an organization that exemplifies how small NGOs can demonstrate within their structure the equality for which they are working. 

A few years ago, the inspirational Mariah Ortiz asked me to define Collaborative Social Change, a term that I was using to describe small NGO partnerships working across cultures.  I had come to believe that we needed a new way of thinking about two communities in different parts of the world working together.  It is one thing to work together against poverty, but what are we then working for?  A better society that is less hospitable to poverty, and that is achieved through social change, right?  Since only the society being changed can drive that change if it is going to stick in the long run, our relationship with them is as collaborator and partner.

I gave Mariah this definition for Collaborative Social Change:

Social change that occurs through the shared labor of two or more entities working in a relationship of equality, leveraging their unique resources, experiences, skills, or ideas to yield an outcome that significantly impacts society.

Not surprisingly, people elsewhere in the world had already come up with a more vivid expression for this concept.  Through Mariah, I learned about the work of One Equal Heart Foundation, a Seattle-based non-profit that supports the work of partners—the Mission of Bachajón and the Center for Indigenous Rights (CEDIAC)—in Chiapas, Mexico.  One Equal Heart Foundation takes its name from the Tseltal Mayan expression “jun pajal co’tanik,” which literally means “one, equal heart of all.”  The name reflects the spirit of the Tseltal Maya who say that when we live in harmony with each other, the Earth and our God, we walk together with “one, equal heart.”


One Equal Heart Foundation is committed as much to learning as it is to providing financial support.   Their work reminds us of the following:

Global economics impacts the lives of the poor.  In the Sacred Book of the Maya, corn is fundamental to the cultural identity of the Maya who call themselves the “People of Corn.” Corn is also the dietary staple and primary source of calories for the Tseltal Maya, and most families are subsistence farmers whose source of food is what they can grow on their land.  A variety of factors, however, are threatening the existence of native corn, for example NAFTA, biofuel-driven mass cultivation of African Palm over food crops, and genetically-modified/engineered seeds.

Poverty is complicated, with interconnected strands woven together like a vibrant Mayan K’ul (or Huipil in Guatemalan Mayan).  In the Mayan world, harmony is achieved by balancing the needs of the individual, marital couple, family,  community, and environment.  This balance is delicate, dependent on social, political, economic, and judicial structures that interconnect around it.  Mission/ CEDIAC partners talk about sustainability in terms of health, with three concentric circles.  Individual and family health relates to the conditions we need for our physical health, including access to medical care and a predictable nutritious diet so we grow to our full potential.  Environmental health includes clean air and water, healthy soils to support sustainable crops, and ecological strategies to live in harmony with the land, animals and plants.  Lastly, social health involves a situation in which people’s human rights are respected.  They have access to decent education and a way to make a living, and they do not live in fear of violence or displacement from their ancestral lands.  The work in Chiapas approaches sustainable development as a holistic and multi-dimensional process. Only by nurturing the whole can individuals live in harmony.

Conflict is best resolved through compromise and consensus around a collectively agreed upon solution.  Recognizing that it is not sustainable to simply punish perpetrators in cases of conflict, the Tseltal Maya Juridical System resolve conflicts by focusing on ways to engage the parties in dialogue. Restorative Justice challenges all involved to mend relationships and search for harmony as a fundamental requirement for our collective survival.


As development fads come and go, One Equal Heart’s partners have evolved their work over fifty years, demonstrating a long-term commitment through dynamic social shifts that have affected the lives of poor Chiapans.  Many organizations make passing reference to “participatory management” or “locally-driven social change.”  OEH and its partners model how two communities can partner in work for social change here and there.

Capacity building: A majority of  Mission/CEDIAC staff members are Tseltal Maya; every director who is not Tseltal is partnered with a Tseltal, and these two staff members work side-by-side implementing the work of their position. No one works solely in the office—even the Administration and Finance Team. All have field work that puts them directly in contact with the Earth and Tseltal communities.

Community investment:  The Tseltal Maya have a pre-existing system of cargos, or volunteer leadership posts, for carrying out the work that benefits the social good.   The Mission/CEDIAC staff draw on this system as they reach far beyond where staffing has capacity to go.

Local wisdom: Development of an indigenous college would keep young people local and decrease the number of Chiapans who migrate to other parts of Mexico and the U.S. in search of work.  Mission/CEDIAC staff members have created a model for higher education that partners young and old in order to temper the energy of the youth with the cultural wisdom of their elders.

Equal partnership: OEH board and staff developed a bi-cultural strategic plan that bridged together the opportunities and concerns of partners in the U.S. and Mexico.


A Mission staff member recently shared an anecdote about poverty alleviation in Chiapas.  One town in Chiapas was the third poorest in Mexico, according to a range of indicators examined by government officials.  In the aftermath of the Zapatista rebellion, the government decided to address the poverty that was causing civil strife and invested heavily in infrastructure projects.  The government paved roads and installed concrete floors in the homes of the poor.  The result?  The town became the second poorest town in Mexico.  (Indeed, other projects purporting to benefit the poor have the opposite effect, separating impoverished Maya from their ancestral lands.)  The indicators used by the government had little to do with the reality of poverty, and outside investment had the unintended result of drawing resources away from the area rather than investing in local solutions.

One Equal Heart and its partners in Chiapas use a Jesuit term, accompaniment, to describe their collaboratory work.  We and they are walking, talking, and laboring together for a better world—with one equal heart.

Give Better

We are an analytical people.  A whole industry of charity evaluators has taken root to help individuals and foundations suss out effective projects.  Non-profit development officers spend hours keeping up with Charity Navigator, Guidestar, and the Better Business Bureau.  Now Givewell enters the scene to offer rigorous research and analysis so donors don’t have to.

The Three Cups controversy coincided with widespread discussion of Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel’s well-reviewed book, More Than Good Intentions: How a New Economics Is Helping to Solve Global Poverty.  Their research supports two main conclusions: (1) understand poverty, and (2) be rigorous in your analysis.

I agree with Karlan and Appel’s conclusions and would like to offer these points to those advocating for greater evaluation:

1.  We evaluate programs through our worldview, which may or may not lead to long term social change.

A few years ago, I adapted the Inter-American Foundation’s Grassroots Development Framework (GDF) for a project in Brazil.  The GDF is very thorough, providing a full range of metrics with which to create benchmarks to show year-to-year improvement.  I asked local staff for feedback (none given) and later to fill out an spreadsheet about their “basic needs.”

The results were entirely unsatisfying in terms of demonstrating need: the data they provided showed nearly everyone as living in houses with electricity and sewage.  Well after the evaluation cycle required by funders, I learned that most families crowded into abandoned houses, using tarps to create a space against a few walls and pirating electricity off of municipal wires.  Many of the families were mobile, moving in with family members or moving across town for work.  The evaluation failed to deliver anything that accurately depicted the dire circumstances of people’s living arrangements or provided a benchmark for future evaluation.

Local staff had no investment in the process of evaluation—yet another form from afar—and had no  idea how to represent the dynamic nature of people’s lives in raw data.  For example, the question “number of people served” is so insufficient.  Directly served?  In a school with 100 students, how do you categorize the people who get jobs from the project, the parents who stop beating their other children because of what they learn through parenting classes, the girls who drop out but still postpone pregnancy for another three years, and the maid who became so inspired that she took university prep classes?   Within social change projects, the change affects everyone who comes in contact with the work.  It is hard to count them.

Evaluation often presents a worldview that rewards large NGOs and those aligned with Western-style middle class culture, not indigenous activists who are often the best leaders of local social change projects.  The worldview of “more is better” is represented with “project cost per beneficiary” and concepts of “return on investment,” encouraging high numbers of beneficiaries.  NGOs can skew data towards large programs that “touch” a lot of people over focused programs that fundamentally change the course of a few people’s lives.

2.  From rigor to rigor mortis

Within our current paradigm of donor-driven priority-setting, more evaluation of NGO programs resembles a school that implements more testing in order to deal with children who are not learning. (Sadly, comparing NGO leaders to children accurately conveys the condescension many of them feel in dealing with donor requirements.)  Too much or inappropriate evaluation results in a decrease in innovative and potentially risky social change work.  As Steven Lawry writes in the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Too much rigor can lead to rigor mortis.”

Rigor leading to rigor mortis captures Givewell’s attempt to advise donors on good international education projects through thorough research and analysis.  In reviewing charities, Givewell begins “by reviewing all publicly available information about your organization including your website, external evaluations, and other relevant information.”  The requirement for external evaluations knocks out at least 90% of small to mid-size NGOs.  Indeed, the only education project anywhere in the world that Givewell endorses is Pratham in India.  Its external evaluation was conducted by MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, for which a Givewell board member worked in 2007.  “Thousands of hours have gone into finding our top-rated charities,” as their website claims, and they could only find one good education program in all the world?  With hurdles this high, the funding of good NGOs will be dead on arrival.

3.  Evaluation is rarely funded.

Raising money for small NGOs is much like patching together a quilt.  Most foundation funding comes in terms of project budgets, with NGOs using individual donations, event proceeds, and any fees for service they can muster to cover overhead.  In fifteen years of writing grants for international programs, I have only received one with full funding for evaluation.  The typical foundation proposal for small NGOs is for $10,000-$50,000 with little room for evaluation if the requested project is going to be funded out of this same pool of money.  In fact, charity evaluators focus on administrative spending, creating incentives for NGOs to skip rigorous evaluation lest they be accused of overloaded overhead.

Let’s fix the system

While the current system is not working, we can change the system to help NGOs run better and donors give better.

First, effective systems for measuring the effectiveness of social programs will require local NGO leaders being at the table during their development.  The current system has donors dictating what needs to be fixed and then dictating the metrics (sometimes implicitly through the application process) to measure how well local people have achieved what we want them to achieve.  Engaging local NGO leaders will help us to understand poverty and the biases that filter our understanding of its decline.  Academia has the concept of peer-review for publications; philanthropy needs a concept of peer-review when it comes to asking the right questions about projects engaged in poverty alleviation.

Second, let’s invest in the capacity building that local NGOs need and want with regards to evaluation.  Foundations  should fund a cross-sector team of philanthropists and NGO leaders to develop common evaluation tools that support local capacity building.  With every proposal, they should  add 10% to fund staff time to conduct evaluation that informs that organization’s and our learning about the issues at hand.  As I wrote about in Being Wrong, we need to create an environment in which it is okay to make mistakes within a setting of learning.

A few years ago, my colleague in Brazil won a prestigious national award.  During the nomination process, I was told that all nominees would be visited by a private detective to check out the validity of their work.  This seemed unnecessarily sinister—certainly out of the ordinary.

At the award banquet, my colleague said that a detective never did come by.  Yes he did, insisted the award staff.  My colleague then recalled a builder who stopped by one day to find out what type of program was running up the street from a property he claimed to be about the develop.  He was immediately surrounded by children who chattered with him for thirty minutes about the project and their experiences with it.  My colleague never had a chance to talk with him—she watched from afar while caught in a conversation.

As I think back, this was the best form of evaluation we could have asked for.  Beneficiaries were given the space to speak about their experiences in a form and venue comfortable to them.  As we invest more thought and money in the best ways to evaluate local programs, sometimes it is most helpful just to stop by and witness the work in person.

Public/Private Ventures gives us an excellent white paper on ways to improve evaluation of small social programs.  Here they describe The Benchmarking Project which engaged 200 workforce development organizations to develop collaboratively new systems for evaluation that responded to their organizations’ realities.