Getting past the “meh” response to nonprofit evaluation

Today, nonprofits are increasingly faced with bridging the gap between urgent issues and the models to solve them. As a result, nonprofit boards, leaders and staff members need program evaluation to deliver on its on promise more than ever. But what is that promise and why does evaluation often get a “meh” response?

One of the main reasons for the “meh” response is that evaluation has historically fallen into the trap of focusing on blame in lieu of growth, contributing to a mounting tension between the idea of evaluation and people who implement programming.

What is evaluation’s promise? Elena Harman’s The Great Nonprofit Evaluation Reboot aims to change the current around evaluation so consultants and in-house evaluators can work with staff members toward the same goal while speaking the same language: a language of intentional learning. When the focus points toward learning, so do the results and the attitudes from both sides of the table.

Ultimately, this is an evaluation book for non-evaluators. Who are non-evaluators? Busy professionals like you and me who need answers, but don’t have time to take an applied research and methods class. If you’ve picked up other books on evaluation and felt like you were left out of the conversation, you’re not alone.

Not only has Elena written a chapter for each position in the organization such as development officer, board member, and executive director, her Reboot is jargon-free and brimming with actionable strategies. You’ll find the answers to your questions about how to measure your efforts and learn on purpose rather than by accident.

In my CausePlanet interview with Elena, I asked her why she thinks nonprofit evaluation needs a reboot, what are the common pitfalls of outsourcing evaluation, and what surprises her most about evaluation today in the field:

CP: Can you tell us why you think nonprofit evaluation needs a reboot? 

EH: Evaluation is not living up to its potential. At its best, evaluation has the power to strengthen our communities by helping nonprofits understand what works and what doesn’t, and improve their services over time. Yet more often, evaluation is known as a burden on nonprofit staff who have to collect tons of data for external stakeholders with no tangible benefit in return.

This disconnect between the potential of evaluation and its reality grew out of the historical origin of evaluation as an accountability tool, coupled with evaluators’ over-reliance on jargon and overemphasis on rigor without focusing on usefulness and accessibility to the nonprofits we serve. Evaluation needs a reboot to close the gap between the evaluation field and the nonprofits we seek to serve. The nonprofit field can only benefit from evaluation’s full potential if evaluators reposition their approach to speak more directly to nonprofits.

CP: What are the common pitfalls of hiring an evaluation consultant? 

EH: The most common pitfall I see is a mismatch between the scope of work and the budget. Good evaluation work takes time and money. Before you even start the hunt for an evaluation consultant, get realistic about what your budget will actually cover. I recommend starting with the understanding that $5,000 or 10% of the program budget will be necessary for adequate evaluation.

The second common pitfall is failing to identify a strong internal contact point for the evaluation. All of my worst evaluation experiences have been “management by committee.” If evaluation is worth spending money on, it should be worth the time and attention of a senior-level staff person to oversee.

And finally, the third common pitfall is outsourcing the thinking of evaluation. While you can certainly pass the technical work of an evaluation off to your consultant, you’re not off the hook for participating in the planning process and guiding the use of evaluation findings afterward. To relinquish all input in the shape of the evaluation is a recipe for a useless evaluation that does not meet the purposes you had in mind. 

CP: What surprises you most about nonprofit evaluation today?

EH: What surprises me most is the enthusiasm of nonprofit professionals who have experienced the true power of evaluation. Despite all the “evaluation baggage” that comes with years of bad experiences with nonprofit evaluation, some nonprofits are still willing to give evaluation another chance. They believe in their hearts that evaluation can be useful to them—even though they haven’t yet experienced it.

And when evaluation lives up to that expectation, their transformation is stunning. These professionals latch onto the evaluation process and findings to make dramatic improvements to their programs and to how their organizations operate. They become advocates for the power of evaluation and find ways to slip evaluation principles in everywhere. It is these happy surprises and success stories that keep me optimistic about the future of evaluation. Just imagine what could happen if even a fraction of the nonprofit field adopted the approach outlined in this book. (Check out some of Elena’s client stories.)

This is one of those books you’ll want to pass around between staff members so everyone can read the chapter that best suits them. Learn more about how to purchase the hard copy or e-book at Vantage-Evaluation.com. And, if you’d like to read our synopsis, visit our summary store. You can also watch this short video interview with the publisher!

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Interview with Steve MacLaughlin about Data Driven Nonprofits

The nonprofit sector has grown dramatically in the last two decades and part of that trajectory has involved the growing use of technology. However, author Steve MacLaughlin argues that nonprofits aren’t using data nearly as much as they could be to move their missions forward.

His new book, Data Driven Nonprofits, focuses primarily on fundraising as the critical element needed to advance an organization. In each chapter, MacLaughlin uses interviews and case stories to explore the variety of ways in which nonprofits, big and small, use data to accelerate change.

We asked MacLaughlin about his favorite example of a nonprofit that uses data to move their mission forward. Learn more about his answer to this question and others below:

CausePlanet: What case story or interview about making the “data leap” is your favorite and why?

SM: There are a lot of really great stories of organizations that have been able to transform their performance through better use of data and analytics. One of my favorites is Denver Rescue Mission, which was founded in 1892, and up until the late 1980s had a staff of four people and total revenue of about $200,000. Today, they raise more than $32 million—so much of that growth has come through being data driven with a growth mindset.

CausePlanet: Where do most nonprofits typically falter when trying to take their initial steps toward using data effectively and why?

SM: One of the biggest mistakes is trying to take on too much, too soon, with expectations that are too high. Nonprofit organizations are much better served by picking a specific question they want to answer or outcome they want to achieve. That first project should be big enough for others to care about, but not so big that it becomes controversial or bogged down in bureaucracy. Time box the team to 30 days to work on that question or outcomes, then come back with recommendations. Over time, you’ll build the right habits and processes to take on the next important problem.

CausePlanet: In your book, readers learn a great deal about how data-driven nonprofits look and behave (e.g. Test, Share, Grow, etc.).

SM: Yes, a big finding from my research and interviews for Data Driven Nonprofits was how big a role organizational culture plays in the success of being more data driven. As you noted, some of those culture types are around testing, sharing, and growing. The bad news is that a nonprofit’s culture must align around and value data. The good news is that nonprofits can have different culture types and still achieve their goals.

CausePlanet: Many important changes or initiatives require buy-in at the top. What three reasons should our readers present to their boards as to why they need to be data-driven?

SM: It’s important, but it’s not the most important thing to being successful. The most important things people can show to senior leaders or their board are examples of how using data produces a better decision or result than just an opinion. Speak softly. Bring data.

CausePlanet: What single idea would you like readers to know about your book?

SM: Equifinality. That’s the single idea that readers should take away from the book. (Pausing for reaction) It turns out that you can have the best data, the best tools, the best people, and still not be successful with data. Organizational culture can undermine any of those efforts. But thanks to equifinality there is hope. Equifinality is the principle that a given end state can be reached by many potential means. Nonprofit organizations have different culture types and still become more data driven. They can start in different places and arrive at the same positive place.

Learn more about this book, related books and our summary:

Measuring the Networked Nonprofit

 

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[Podcast] Kathie Sorensen on culture: optimizing interactions and dispensing with outdated practices

“I have a foundational belief that business results start with culture and your people,” said, Douglas Conant, leadership consultant and former CEO of Campbell’s Soup Company. Conant speaks from direct experience since he’s credited with having reversed Campbell’s decline in market value, improved the company’s financial profile and enhanced its diversity and inclusion practices during 2001-2011.

These seismic changes didn’t happen overnight. They were the result of Conant’s careful cultivation of culture and investment in his people. Nonprofit executives have an equal, if not greater, stake than business leaders in putting culture and people first especially since many professionals are drawn to our organizations for a stronger connection to collective purpose and coworkers who share their passion.

We recently had a conversation with Kathie Sorensen, the coauthor of Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, to talk about what helps organizations build better cultures. In Culture Eats, she and her coauthor, Curt Coffman, talk about three domains of culture: MicroCulture, BridgeCulture and MacroCulture.

In each domain, they explain how leaders, managers and employees can 1) optimize their interactions to improve culture and 2) dispense with outdated practices that undermine outcomes and the alignment with your purpose.

We asked Kathy Sorensen to break down these two topics further in our questions below:

CausePlanet: Can you briefly tell everyone about the micro, bridge and macro domains?

Kathie Sorensen – Micro, Bridge & Macro Domains

CausePlanet: What are some specific examples of optimizing your interactions to cultivate a culture that ensures you can honor your strategy?

Kathie Sorensen – Optimizing interactions

CausePlanet: What are some of the outdated practices that undermine culture outcomes and alignment with purpose?

Kathie Sorensen – Outdated practices

CausePlanet: Can you talk about an example where you observed an organization that applied some of your proven practices and how that translated into better alignment with purpose?

Kathie Sorensen – Example

Read more books and summaries about this topic:

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch

TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments

The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide

Fired Up or Burned Out: Reignite Your Team…

Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do…

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[Podcast] Get ready to update your assumptions about millennials

While the topic of engaging millennials as donors and volunteers seems to constantly bubble to the surface, unfortunately, the frequency of these conversations doesn’t equate to having all the answers.

We decided it was time to have another chat with Kari Dunn Saratovsky and Derrick Feldmann about Cause for Change, a book they published in 2013. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on what’s evolved since then and equally important, what remains relevant. Join us for some interesting responses to our questions below:

One of the things that stuck with me when I first read Cause for Change is that Kari and Derrick wanted to help nonprofits think differently to attract a generation who wants to give it their all, but also has a lot of competing pressure on their time and dollars.

CausePlanet: Could we begin by sharing what surprised you most in the results from the Millennial Impact Report and what’s evolved since then?

A new mentality and donor assets redefined (6:16)

CausePlanet: The Millennial Engagement Platform (BUILD) is a central framework you highlight throughout Cause for Change. Could you revisit that framework with us?

Determine your success with the BUILD framework (6:41)

CausePlanet: What is the most important takeaway you want readers to remember today in light of what’s transpired since you published Cause for Change?

Don’t jump to tech only – make value-based, in-person connections (3:27)

Figure out how to involve people in making change (3:26)

Read more on this topic:

Fundraising and the Next Generation

Working Across Generations

Social Change Anytime Everywhere: How to Implement Online Multichannel Strategies to Spark Advocacy, Raise Money and Engage Your Community

Liquid Leadership: From Woodstock to Wikipedia – Multigenerational Management Ideas That Are Changing the Way We Run Things

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[Podcast] Your best sustainability safety net: Create a culture of leadership development

When most nonprofits consider succession planning, they view the board working episodically when it senses a looming change on the horizon. Author Tom Adams argues that rather than experience abrupt changes in sustainability, organizations can, instead, create a culture of continuity through leadership development. What does that mean? Listen to his sound bites below and find out.

CausePlanet: The statistic that 75 percent of nonprofit leaders plan to leave their positions coupled with the statistic that 71 percent of nonprofits don’t have a succession plan in place is staggering. If you could push the rewind button for a nonprofit when its CEO resigns, what preparations would you recommend they make as they head toward this change of leadership hands?

Tom AdamsLook at sustainability – 4 dimensions

CausePlanet: What’s the biggest elephant in the room when broaching the subject of succession planning with the board and current CEO?

Tom Adams: What is the elephant in the room?

CausePlanet: What’s the most common barrier to or misconception about succession planning that prevents nonprofits from engaging in the steps to begin a plan?

Tom Adams: There is a normal fear of misunderstanding–the executive feeling forced out or the board feeling the executive is concerned about confidence in her/him. So, it is easy to put off. The second barrier is a narrow understanding of the benefits. Succession planning ought to be more than a check-the-box completion of some boilerplate documents. It is a strategic process that advances mission effectiveness and the leader development culture. When seen more broadly, it is still hard to find time. With the CEO and board champions, it happens and the value becomes clear.

In this last sound bite, Adams shares two organizations that grappled with the anticipation of succession planning and made some important discoveries: Two examples from the nonprofit sector.

Learn more about The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide. 

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[Podcast] 4 strategies and 1 fundamental truth for standing out among other nonprofits

Differentiation is the one the best ways to set your organization apart from the rest. But how do we go about doing that in our donor communications when there are so many worthy causes?

Last week, we interviewed fundraising expert Jeff Brooks about four great strategies for differentiation and he also shared one important fundamental truth.

Listen here for his answer: Jeff Brooks on Differentiation

Brooks’ fundamental truth: “Donors don’t give because you’re great. They give because they are great.”

It’s tempting to talk about your organization’s accomplishments and what you’ve done with donations to prove yourself worthy but that’s not what donors want to hear. Instead, they’d like to know what they’ve accomplished by giving a donation to you.

Here are Brooks’ four strategies that back up this fundamental truth:

Donors are the heroes of their own stories.

The donor is a part of the action when helping a beneficiary. You communicate with your reader, instead of trying to impress him/her, and use the word “you.” Skip your creative writing techniques and write simply and casually. 

Donors get prompt, detailed, and frequent information on the impact of their giving.

Otherwise, there is a disconnect. To report back to your donors, you can either communicate through receipts or newsletters. Receipts are quick and provide information about what the gift accomplished, express gratitude, include a note from someone the donor knows, depict pictures if possible, and welcome the new donor if this is the first gift.

Newsletters should focus on donors and the impacts of their giving. To strengthen your newsletter, tell wonderful stories, write amazing headlines, write and design for skimmability and readability, ask for donations, and value all levels of donations.

Your writing should be informal, dramatic and readable, focusing on well-told feature stories with emotion. Other reports can include special progress reports about ongoing projects, invitations to phone conferences or webinars about the work, and phone calls to thank donors. 

Donors have control over how you communicate with them.

Let them choose the channels they want to use and opt out of the ones they don’t want. Ask them what topics they want to hear about and how often they want to hear from you. Let them leave your list if they want to. Send them questionnaires via mail and/or email to find answers to your questions. 

Donors receive extremely focused images.

Don’t get caught up in the “creative” vs. “old-fashioned” argument. This argument rarely considers effectiveness, and designs can use both. Avoid fonts that are creative but hard to read (use serif fonts for text, sans-serif for online text), reverse type, type over tints and colored type. Focus, instead, on readability, simplicity (not flashiness), cultural appropriateness and flexibility to vary your communications.

Finally, watch the following indicators, instead of just listening to advice, to see if you’re connecting with donors and they’re staying with you longer: campaign results (strong response, average gift and net revenue), donor retention, and donor migration (upgrading, donors increase their giving amounts and downgrading, donors decrease their giving amounts.)

Hear more from Jeff Brooks’ in our podcast about how nonprofit brands can work against you.

Learn more about books on this topic and our summaries.

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[Podcast] Commercial brands need not apply with nonprofit donors

Sometimes the best way to teach others how to do something is to show them what doesn’t work first. This rationale was at the root of our question about nonprofit branding for donor communications author Jeff Brooks last week.

Nonprofits often look to the business world for inspiration and branding is no exception. Unfortunately, the branding rules for business don’t apply in the social sector.

Brooks explains that commercial brands operate successfully in the abstract ideals of good and services while nonprofits need to show the problem in a realistic way. In short, show clear, emotional images that connect.

Six warning signs that your brand has gone astray are:

The new brand is not aimed at your donors.

The new brand requires you to abandon your donors to seek new, possibly fictitious ones, instead of expanding your base.

The work is not grounded in donor behavior (what donors do instead of what they say about your organization or understand in focus groups).

The new brand describes your cause in a symbolic way, instead of in a clear, realistic fashion to move donors to act.

The new brand requires absolute consistency, not leaving room for creativity or varying the messages for changing circumstances or relationships with donors.

The new brand is design—and little else.

Listen to Jeff Brooks’ live answer about why commercial branding doesn’t work for nonprofit organizations: Jeff Brooks on Branding

Remember, to counteract the six warning signs above, you must call your donors to action. Hear more from Jeff Brooks in our podcast about communication strategies that set your organization apart from the rest.

Learn more about books on this topic and our summaries.

 

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[Podcast] Avoid burnout by getting your people connected

I love it when the planets align. I was about to hold a podcast with Connection Culture author, Michael Stallard, when I read an article in Fast Company titled, “The Top Three Nonprofit Jobs of the Future.” One of those jobs is Chief Culture Officer. It’s been said that you have a culture whether you cultivate one or not. The question is, are you going to be a leader who carefully cultivates one or leaves it up to chance?

When I had my conversation with Stallard last week, I asked him why nonprofit CEOs need to prioritize culture. My guess was competitive advantage and quality of work life but, of course, he had a much more interesting answer.

Join me in listening to this answer and others about how to avoid burnout in your ranks, the signs of a healthy culture, examples of connected cultures and where to find more than 100 ways to connect employees:

CausePlanet: What are the benefits of a connection culture? In other words, why should a nonprofit CEO care if their people are connected to one another?

Benefits of a Connection Culture

CausePlanet: How can the ideas in your book be applied specifically to the issue of nonprofit burnout?

How Do CEOs Neutralize Burnout?

CausePlanet: How can nonprofit executives foster connection within their organizations?

What Elements Are Necessary for Connection?

Get a free copy of 100 Ways to Connect and Stallard’s “Connect to Thrive” email newsletter.

CausePlanet: Can you tell us about a connected culture you observed and appreciated?

Connection Culture Example

CausePlanet: Tell us more about the Connection Culture!

More About the Book

Learn more about Michael Stallard’s first book, Fired Up or Burned Out and our summary.

More titles and summaries in this genre:

The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide: Revealing the Hidden Truths that Impact Performance

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch: The Secret of Extraordinary Results Igniting the Passion Within

Winning with a Culture of Recognition

Image credits: ATD, culturetalk.com

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[Podcast] Getting to the heart of a great ask

Despite the immense amount of focus we place on understanding the art of asking for support, it continues to keep us treading water and occasionally dipping our heads below the surface.

We had the chance to speak with author Laura Fredricks recently about her book, The Ask: The Ask: How to Ask for Support for Your Nonprofit Cause, Creative Project or Business VentureI’m confident you’ll enjoy her insights in response to our questions.

CausePlanet: What trend(s) are you noticing in donor solicitations since you published this updated version of The Ask?

Fredricks: A real dedication to raising money from individuals–speaking with people before, during and after events–and board members eager to know, “How can I get this right?”

Listen here: Getting it right

CausePlanet: There is a surprising lack of literature about the importance of follow-up in donor solicitations. We’re delighted to see you’ve addressed it in your book. What are some important reminders for nonprofit leaders that might motivate them to place a priority on this area?

Fredricks: You are leaving $$$$ on the table because you do not have solid steps to close it. My BIGGEST tip: Donors leave clues and we miss every one of them. Pay attention to how they communicate and the frequency with which they communicate and follow up on their patterns.

Listen here: What are the clues we miss?

CausePlanet: In Dan Pink’s book, To Sell Is Human, he says all great sales people demonstrate buoyancy in the face of rejection. Have you observed any consistent characteristics among successful fundraisers? If so, what are they?

Fredricks: My mantra is “Every donor is a mini campaign” so devote special and individualized attention to every one. The same holds true for fundraisers: I coach them to have their own voice, enjoy the process and learn as much as they can. That equals success!

Listen here: More on buoyancy

CausePlanet: Tell us about your new book, The Ask for Philanthropy, Business and Every Day Living. 

Listen here: More about Fredricks’ new book

Most, if not all of us, are in the business of asking for something every day. That’s why we’re determined to identify the best way to go about persuading one another.

This topic has been widely developed within each sector, yet Fredricks has built a bridge across all sectors by explaining the Ask, using universal principles, making it easy, enjoyable, meaningful and rewarding.

Laura Fredricks not only addresses how to ask for support for a nonprofit, but also her advice extends well into the for-profit arena, offering guidance for those who are soliciting investments in business ventures or creative projects. Her book details how to make the most effective Ask in philanthropy, business and everyday life.

Learn more about this title and related book summaries:

The Ask: How to Ask for Support for Your Nonprofit Cause, Creative Project or Business Venture

Fundraising the SMART Way

The Influential Fundraiser

Creating Value in Business-Nonprofit Collaborations

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[Podcast] Need to clarify roles between your nonprofit staff and board?

Board leadership is an area that demands much of our attention and effort due to its critical role in helping an organization “thrive or dive,” says Jean Block, author of The Invisible Yellow Line: Clarifying Nonprofit Board and Staff Roles.

Block decided the Invisible Yellow Line is a perfect metaphor for the working relationship between a board and staff in a nonprofit organization. If you’ve ever watched a football game on TV or your personal device, you have the benefit of a yellow line on the field that shows you how much yardage the team must gain in order to move down the field for a touchdown.

Even though the line is invisible to the players, it’s constantly moving and hotly debated at times. Board members and staff have cooperative roles and responsibilities that seem to be constantly moving depending on the “field position” or goal at hand.

In a recent author podcast with Block, we asked:

CausePlanet: What is the most common signal that tells you that your board and staff need a conversation about roles and responsibilities?

Listen to her answer hereJean Block on signals

CausePlanet: In chapter nine, you talk about the Invisible Yellow Line Test. Could you explain what some of those questions might be and how the test can help staff and board members move forward?

Listen to her answer hereJean Block on testing the clarity of your yellow line

If there was one universal nonprofit rule book that contained a set of guidelines defining the roles of the board and staff, we could avoid an incredible amount of miscommunication and angst over getting things done at the leadership level. The fact is it doesn’t exist because things change, asserts author Jean Block.

She adds that organizations and people evolve. Block has written The Invisible Yellow Line to provide a way for board and staff leaders to communicate about their roles and “reduce the trap of assumptions and defensiveness.”

Learn more about Jean Block and her services at www.jblockinc.com.

Learn more about this title and related book summaries at CausePlanet.org.

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