Archive for December, 2013

Creating a new habit: Incorporating program evaluation into your daily operations

You are already busy enough. In fact, you’re busy running your programs. You don’t want to steal time away from actually doing the work and spend it on evaluation. Let’s face it: evaluation takes staff time, some expertise and money.

At the same time, you know that evaluation is at the very least a necessary evil. I’ve been hearing this comment repeatedly, “More and more funders are demanding information about outcomes, not just outputs.” And, in your heart of hearts, you know it can be a force for good if you use it to improve your program.

So, what to do? Simply start asking yourself two key questions on a regular basis. For any and all of your programs, new or ongoing, ask yourself:

What are we trying to achieve with this program?

What will I see and hear that will indicate to me whether we’re achieving what we want to achieve?

Let’s take an example from my home life. If I were planning a yard sale and I asked myself the first key question (What did I want to achieve?), I would tell you that I wanted to

a) get rid of all my useless stuff,

b) make a little spending money,

c) accomplish (a) and (b) without driving myself nuts and wearing myself out in the process.

If you then asked me the second key question (What would I see and hear that would indicate that I was achieving my desired outcomes?), I would say that at the end of the day, I would see an empty yard and a full cash box, and I would not be exhausted from the process. As far as quantifiable outcomes, I might tell you that 80% of my stuff would be gone from the yard and there would be $50 in the cash box.

So, what is the significance of these two key questions, and why are they so powerful when it comes to incorporating program evaluation into your day-to-day operations? Simply because program evaluation is, above all, more than using surveys and interviews and focus groups to measure outputs, outcomes and impacts. Program evaluation is a mindset. Program evaluation is a manner of thinking in evaluative terms. When you start asking yourself about achievements and predicting what you will see and hear that will help you understand your achievements, you are thinking about–-no, you are actually doing–program evaluation.

At this point you may be wondering, “What good is a mindset when my funders are asking for numbers and touching stories about how we are changing lives? And more numbers?”

There are two advantages of having and practicing a mindset:

Without it, program evaluation is pure tedium, and besides, you’re probably doing it wrong and thus wasting your resources.

With a mindset of evaluative thinking, you are on the right track to the reliable numbers and valid touching stories that your funders want.

To start practicing right away, ask yourself the two key questions in the following situations:

at a staff meeting as the season’s work begins.

at a board meeting when considering which program(s) to cut and which to grow.

with a funder who shows you an RFP for a potential program which may be a good fit for your organization.

with your colleagues in social situations while you’re brainstorming ways to change the world for the better.

by yourself on a weekend when you can’t help wondering why a particular program feels stale and another one animates you whenever you think about it.

I guarantee that if you begin asking yourself these questions on a regular basis (this means at least a couple of times each week), evaluation practices will naturally follow. Without any additional drudgery on your part, you’ll find yourself doing things like…

debriefing programs with your staff by asking specific questions such as, “What did you see and hear, and what does that tell you about whether we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve?” These are even more powerful than the excellent common question, “What worked and what didn’t work and what should we do differently next time?”

building a budget for a proposed program that allocates 11 or 12 hours per week of your program director’s time instead of 10 hours, so that he or she has some additional time to think evaluatively.

designing and distributing quick surveys at your events. There’s a strong possibility that you already do this, and it’s equally likely that your current survey isn’t asking the questions that get at what you really want to know. Once you’ve asked the two key questions about any program, you’ll naturally refer back to those questions and your surveys will become significantly more useful.

Before you know it and without any sense of resistance or undue burden, you’ll be doing exactly what you need to do to make your funders happy and gather useful information to improve your program.

So, start incorporating program evaluation into your day-to-day operations today. Place the two key questions on your computer desktop so that you’ll see it every day. Then, take a minute to focus on one of your programs and begin your new habit by asking yourself, “What are we trying to achieve with this program?”


If you would like to participate in an online Google Doc forum to help build the habit of asking yourself the two key questions, go to, then go to the Links Page, then follow the link to the Google Doc.

See also:

Level Best

Leap of Reason

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High-impact boards: Trower answers your questions

Last week, we hosted a lively interview with Cathy Trower about The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership. Her essential how-to edition for boards and nonprofit CEOs generated so many questions from our webinar attendees that Trower answered what we couldn’t get to during the hour here in this article.

As many of you know, Trower’s book expands upon Governance as Leadership’s influential work with a wealth of examples from high-performing nonprofit boards as well as insightful guidance on how to successfully operate in three celebrated modes: fiduciary, strategic and generative.

Trower kindly addressed these nine additional questions below from our webinar attendees:

1. Could you explain “flow” and how you can reach “flow” on your board?

In Csikszentmihalyi’s terms, the idea is to get the board into “flow”–the mental state in which each person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing with a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and success in the process of the activity. This means utilizing the skills of board members on challenging tasks. It is where high skills and high challenge meet, so you have to appoint board members with the right skill set AND give them substantive (challenging) issues to tackle.

2. How do you suggest fostering teamwork on a board?

  • Have the board name great teams they know (e.g., sports, emergency room, flight deck, SWAT/military). Ask what they all have in common. They will say common purpose, trust, goals, role clarity, etc.
  • Discuss purpose–Why are we here (as a board)?
  • Set clear, compelling and consequential goals for the board and committees.
  • Help members see how they add value.
  • Discuss team performance and what that would look like in the boardroom.
  • Don’t allow individuals to subvert the collective performance.

3. I’m a new CEO of a small nonprofit. I want the board to be challenged and give more wisdom than it has previously. The members are so used to budgets and reports, though, that every time I bring up a larger issue, they clam up. What can I do?

Talk to them about why they “clam up” because you have to get to the root cause. Is it because they lack knowledge and don’t want to appear stupid? Is it because they lack passion for organizational issues? Are they not really experts on the issues you face? Is it because it feels strange and they’re just not used to it? Have they had bad experiences in the past where people stepped up and got smacked down (before you got there)? Unless you can get to they “why” you won’t be able to change the behavior.

4. How do board members feel about Governance as Leadership? Do they embrace the challenge or feel threatened?

As with anything new, responses are mixed. One thing is for sure: If the leaders (e.g., CEO, chair) are ambivalent/skeptical, the board senses it and gets skittish. But every board member wants to be engaged; they want to know it matters that they show up at meetings. Everyone’s time is precious! They want their intellectual capital tapped. I always ask when getting started and after they have read chapter one of the book about the GaL model, “What resonates with you?” “What doesn’t?” “What has you concerned or perplexed?” And after they’ve done some tri-modal thinking/practice, ask them: “How did that go?” “What were the benefits of thinking in three modes?” “What were the challenges?” “Why?”

5. I’ve served on many boards and have stopped serving because I feel like they are a waste of my time. The staff could figure out the budgets and operations better than I could, and all the board meetings were just opportunities for the CEO to report progress. I have some experience, though, and wonder how I could better vet a board where I could actually contribute. What do you suggest?

Prior to agreeing to serve, ask the leadership some questions: “What are the 2-3 most important issues/decisions the board worked on/made during the past year?” “What are the 2-3 most important issues that will come before the board in the year ahead?” “What are the biggest challenges the organization faces?” How do you plan to utilize the board?” “What do you see as the skills I bring to these issues/to the board table?”

6. What should a leader focus on when trying to change a culture to one that supports the Governance as Leadership principles?

This is really complicated so there is no simple answer, but I will say this: First, a leader must understand the culture that exists. Importantly, a culture is comprised of artifacts (the things you can see and the policies in place), espoused values (what everyone says they value) and underlying assumptions (the stuff people are sometimes not really aware of but that actually drives behavior). The key is to get to the underlying assumptions–-how people really think.

7. A board I’m working on cannot come to consensus on anything. We have such divergent viewpoints that we can’t get anything done. How could Governance as Leadership help us?

GaL is very much about deciding what to focus on and how various stakeholders see the issues and then deciding what makes sense for the organization. Divergent views are actually healthy. But you may be bringing issues to the board that are already too far downstream in the thinking process and people are disagreeing about tactics. Try to get issues to the board early (upstream in the thinking and framing stages) and then discuss them together. Discuss who thinks what and why and then figure out how to get on one page.

8. What kind of leader do you need to implement Governance as Leadership?

One who is comfortable with ambiguity. One who is confident without being egotistical-–who actually wants a board that pushes his/her thinking. One who is not afraid to say, “What did I miss? How else might I look at this? What do you think?”

9. We have instituted a mandatory dollar amount that board members must “give or get” and it has driven away some longstanding board members. Is this good so that new members can come in and reach these goals or bad since we are losing some continuity?

It’s neither good nor bad on its face; there’s much more to it I would imagine. But if longstanding board members aren’t giving or getting, perhaps it is time for them to go. All board members should be told before joining a board what the giving expectations are. In your case, since this is a new policy, I think it’s fair to tell longstanding members they need to also step up and if they can’t or won’t, they will have to step down. That seems reasonable to me. In your situation, I guess I’d worry less about continuity than reaching what sounds like necessary fundraising goals. All board members should bring time, treasure, and talent or work, wealth, and wisdom–-not too much to ask or expect.

Trower’s explanation of how to practice working in three modes we mentioned above was particularly helpful and I encourage you to listen to the archive once we have it posted on the Interview page. You can also read more interview answers about The Practitioner’s Guide in our Page to Practice™ summary or purchase Trower’s book at

See also:

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Guide

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Is your glass half-full with assets?

“More than 80% of the kids at our school live at or below the poverty line; many of our families have to choose between food/diapers/rent…,” said the parent’s note when it was handed to my husband.

Every December for the past nine years, my husband’s company spends an entire day decorating and preparing a local school so they can throw a holiday party that evening for the students and their families. They host a holiday meal and enjoy games, face painting, portraits and a visit from Santa.

As the parents enter the school with their kids, most look exhausted from a long day, perhaps working more than one job, but their moods lift when their children see the celebration awaiting them. One of the mothers put this small folded note into my husband’s hand as she scooted past him and entered the classroom designated for face painting. She’d clearly typed up this message and made copies so she could hand it out to the volunteers that evening.

Once an in-house holiday party…

My husband’s company identified its annual holiday party as an opportunity to provide its celebration to an organization with greater need. After developing a relationship with the school administrators, they discovered how much these school communities need a break from the constant financial strain of living at or below the poverty level. Rather than hold a corporate party for the employees, the company decided to offer a party for one school and its community on an annual basis.

One asset leads to the discovery of others

While choosing a different school every year was appreciated, they soon realized the heightened value of continuity and the importance of developing a relationship with one school over time. Plus, they could collaboratively identify other ways of working together. Last year, the company made a three-year commitment to one school in particular because of their shared commitment to education and college-bound students. The partnership provides a forum for discovery of what each partner can bring to the table and a channel for additional educational initiatives, including monetary donations, technology and volunteer hours. Activities and events include support for launching the school’s first library, a Book Trust fundraising drive, reading campaigns, science lab enhancements, teacher appreciation luncheons, learning technologies and teacher meeting spaces. The partnership will also help the school expand their curriculum to include fourth and fifth grades by the 2015-2016 school year.

Focusing on assets versus needs

This partnership between the company and school is a perfect example of identifying one’s assets to address a local need. The authors of When People Care Enough to Act would ask you to pay close attention to a community’s assets rather than immediately and exclusively focusing on needs, which yield limited results. By partnering with this school, the administrators were able to identify and tap into their own strengths as well as pursue a vision they had for their students, one of which was building a curriculum for fourth and fifth graders.

When People Care Enough to Act is based on the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach that focuses on “discovering and mobilizing the resources that are already present in a community,” say Green, Moore and O’Brien. In other words, the authors demonstrate that every community has more potential resources than any one person knows.

What’s inside?

This workbook is meant to be a friendly catalyst to you, the community builder. No matter what your role–agency leader, staff community organizer or citizen—you will learn about your options to act more effectively for a stronger community. You’ll learn about the three qualities of effective community development, the five building blocks of any healthy community and the three interconnected activities surrounding Asset Based Community Development. Finally, the authors will explore key themes that define a framework for action.

Guiding principles for asset-based community building

I asked author, Mike Green, to elaborate on the difference between an asset-based approach and needs-based approach. Below you’ll find his answer and an excerpt of 12 guiding principles:

Green: Most communities address social and economic problems with only a small amount of their total capacity. Much community capacity is not used and is needed! This is the challenge and opportunity of ABCD. Everyone in a community has something to offer. There is no one we don’t need.

Here are the first four of twelve guiding principles of ABCD in action:

1.) Everyone has gifts. With rare exception people can contribute and want to contribute. Gifts must be discovered. Gift giving opportunities must be offered. Strong communities know they need everyone. There is unrecognized capacity and assets in every community. Find it.

2.) Relationships build a community. See them, make them and utilize them. An intentional effort to build and nourish relationships is the core of ABCD and of all community building.

3.) Residents at the center can engage the wider community. People in leadership in everyday life (associations, congregations, neighborhoods and local businesses) must be at the center of community initiatives rather than just helping agency leaders. It is essential to engage the wider community as actors (citizens) not just as recipients of services (clients).

4.) Leaders involve others as active members of the community. Leaders from the wider community of voluntary associations, congregations, neighborhoods, local businesses can engage others from their sector. Community building leaders always need to have a constituency of people to involve. This following is based on trust, influence and relationship. Strong community leaders invite a growing circle of people to act.

I encourage you to use this time of year to evaluate your personal, organizational and community assets and look for ways they can be of service to others. Mike Green and his coauthors would argue a community that focuses on its assets and how they can be best utilized has far more potential than a community absorbed by its needs.

See also:

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Deciding where to give in the season of giving

This was originally posted on the Corona Insights Radiance Blog.

As the season of giving approaches many of us start to think about what we can do to make the world a better place, to help those less fortunate than ourselves, to give back or pay it forward.  And in addition to undertaking individual acts of kindness, many of us will look to nonprofit organizations for ways to make our individual efforts go farther – either through participating in coordinated volunteering efforts or offering financial support to help an organization carry out its mission throughout the year.

So how do we select organizations to support?  This is not only a question about identifying our deeply held values, but a question of what does it take to trust an organization (literally, to entrust them with our money)?

Limits to financials

A number of groups have developed websites to help answer the question of trust.  Charity Navigator , CharityWatch, and GuideStar, to name a few, provide measures of financial performance, ostensibly to help you know whether the organization will use your money wisely.  However, there has been a rising wave of dissatisfaction with common financial metrics (which tend to focus on low overhead), suggesting that the focus on those measures has unintended consequences that negatively impact the ability of nonprofit organizations to carry out their missions.  For a fantastic presentation of these issues, please watch Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk from earlier this year.

Program success

Indeed, in response to some of these concerns, Charity Navigator, GuideStar and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance are adopting metrics of program success in addition to financial metrics.  This move has received much press attention (see recent reports in The Chronicle  of Philanthropy and on NPR).  Nonprofit organizations seem both glad to move away from an excessive focus on the percentage of spending on overhead, yet daunted by the task of measuring performance.

These two issues are related – for most nonprofit organizations, evaluating program success will require additional overhead spending.  And for many, to get the expertise and capacity necessary to formulate clear measures and develop creative ways to measure outcomes in challenging populations, they will need to hire a professional evaluator.  While many granting agencies that provide funding to nonprofits both require evaluation as part of the grant activities and provide funding for evaluation within the grant, the charity evaluation sites may need to additionally reform how they rate overhead spent on the evaluation of program success.

What donors want is to be connected to a cause that is important to them.  Focusing on what nonprofit organizations are accomplishing in terms of world betterment is a much more intuitive way of inspiring trust in prospective donors.  It provides a direct connection with shared values, as opposed to the financial metrics that turn the focus on the money being given rather than the reason for giving.

We’re proud of our work helping nonprofit organizations measure their accomplishments, and we look forward to helping others document their success so that they can build trust with other likeminded individuals looking to make a difference – both this season of giving and throughout the year.

See also:

Charity Case

Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity

Charity On Trial: What You need to Know Before You Give

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The Pink perspective: Everyone is in sales

It wasn’t long ago when most of us in the nonprofit sector bristled when someone said we should run our organizations more like businesses. Today, we’ve come to realize there’s a grain of truth in that claim. The same can be said of businesses adopting more principled practices like nonprofit organizations. The reality is that much can be borrowed from one another while still preserving our respective sector identities and values. The low-profit limited liability company (L3C) or hybrid nonprofit/business is a perfect example of our respective sectors taking a closer look at blending the best of our operational qualities.

So you can imagine my interest when I attended the Book-n-Benefit event this week as a guest of my dear friend Tommy Spaulding, who is the author of It’s Not Just Who You Know. Spaulding invited his colleague and celebrated author, Daniel Pink, to address our group about his third and latest best-selling book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others.

According to Pink, every one of us is in sales: “Whether we’re employees pitching colleagues on a new idea, entrepreneurs enticing funders to invest or parents and teachers cajoling children to study, we spend our days trying to move others.”

To Sell Is Human is a compelling perspective on the art and science of selling. In his book, Pink reveals these highlights and more:

  • The new ABCs of moving others
  • Why extraverts don’t make the best salespeople
  • Six successors to the elevator pitch
  • Three rules for understanding another’s perspective
  • Five frames that can make your message clearer and more persuasive

Daniel Pink is the author of four books, including the long-running New York Times best-sellers Drive and A Whole new Mind. According to To Sell Is Human, more than 15 million people earn their keep by persuading someone else every day. How do you plan on improving the way you move people? This book may be a great way to start.

See also:

Made to Stick

The End of Fundraising

The NON Nonprofit

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Suggest a book and enter to win a Nook

December is Read a New Book Month! Join us in encouraging one another to delve in a new book that will have you leading your nonprofit with fresh ideas and new approaches.

Simply suggest a book and enter to win a Nook e-reader! Post a relevant business or nonprofit title that you have read or would like to read on our Facebook page and earn a chance to win a Nook e-reader! (Hint: Visit our summary store for ideas! ) Deadline: 5 p.m. MST on Dec 31.

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Assessing research quality: a quick tip for even the non-researchers

I serve on an advisory committee for a college program that trains organizational leaders, and at our last meeting there was a discussion about the curriculum for a research class. The committee chair looked at me and said, “Hey, you work in this field. What’s the most valuable research topic we can teach leaders?”

My gosh, I’ve waited for that question my whole life or at least for the twenty years I’ve worked as a research consultant. My answer was swift and enthusiastic: “the ability to tell good research from bad research.”

Everyone a researcher?

It’s great to make data-driven decisions, and in the modern world there’s more data than ever to help us. But if it’s going to add value, that data obviously needs to be correct, and unfortunately, bad research is more common than you think. The proliferation of do-it-yourself data collection tools, such as SurveyMonkey, along with the increased availability of pre-digested data online has made everyone a researcher, whether he/she has the skills or not. Marketing firms, technology firms, grantwriting firms and even money-conscious executive directors now also do research in addition to their core jobs. And unfortunately for everyone, that often results in research that is unreliable and inaccurate. If you base strategic or tactical decisions on bad data, then you’ll probably make some bad decisions even if your intent is good.

Good vs. bad vs. no

There’s a simple rule I preach often to clients: It’s better to have good research than no research, but it’s better to have no research than bad research.

So how do you tell the good research from the bad research? When asked to write this article, I struggled with it a bit. I could write a book on how to critique a research report and it still wouldn’t cover everything a good research reader needs to know. So what value can I provide in 1,000 words or less?

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized there’s one clue that almost always exists in bad research, and it’s easy to recognize if you know to look for it. When you read a research report, just ask yourself the following question:

“Did the researcher study the right population, or did he/she just study a convenient population?”

This is far and away the most common problem I see with weak research. A wannabe researcher may say, “We need to do a survey to see what people think about this issue. I know–we’ll send a SurveyMonkey survey to the people in my Outlook contacts!” Or he/she will say, “’Let’s do a focus group. I’ll get some of my friends together and we’ll see what they think.”

Well, the good news is this is a cheap way to do things. The bad news is you get what you pay for–meaningless results that may actually take you in the wrong direction. The key is to recognize whom the research is supposed to represent and whom it actually represents. If they’re different, you may have a problem.


As an example, I’ll walk through a couple of case studies of research-gone-wrong incidents that have happened over the past few years.

A local grantwriting firm was hired a few years back to conduct a survey of nonprofits for a governmental agency. Instead of drawing a sample of area nonprofits (the proper approach), it sent a do-it-yourself survey to nonprofits on its marketing list. So what’s wrong with this? Plenty. Among other weaknesses, this list was undoubtedly skewed toward larger and older organizations, because that’s who usually hires consultants. Second, is that grantwriter’s marketing list skewed toward a particular type of nonprofit it typically works with, such as human services or arts or animals? Is it skewed toward foundations or agencies or organizations that aggressively pursue grant funding?

A savvy research reader will ask, “Would we have gotten different results if we had hired a different consultant and surveyed that second consultant’s marketing list instead?” Probably. So if that’s true, what did the grantwriter really measure? Why not just draw a random sample of nonprofits and do it right?

In another example with a happier ending, an agency wished to do a survey about health issues. It had a marketing firm on board, and the marketing firm had dollars in its eyes. It offered to conduct a survey, despite having no expertise in the field, and made plans to field a do-it-yourself survey by sending links to individuals in its Outlook Contacts. So what was wrong with that? Pretty much everything. Who’s going to be in the Outlook Contacts for a marketing firm? I can pretty much guarantee it’s going to be working-age people, likely skewing young. I can pretty much guarantee it’s going to be people who work in professional services like…you know…marketing. It’s probably going to consist mostly of people with salaried positions who have college degrees. How many oilfield workers are going to be in that contact list? Fast food workers? Retirees?

It would have been a disaster but fortunately the client was savvy in that case and sought outside advice. The do-it-yourself survey was canceled and the money spent in better ways.

Obviously, there are many different types of research and many other tips I could offer for critiquing research. However, asking yourself a couple of simple questions can go a long toward telling you how trustworthy that research report is: Whom are we trying to study, and whom exactly did we study? While there are always some compromises that must be made, those compromises should be minimized to the greatest extent possible, and amateur researchers often miss the boat on this simple but powerful truth.

So the next time you need to make a data-driven decision, think about this as a clue to the quality of your data. Because after all, it’s better to have good research than no research, but it’s better to have no research than bad research.

See also:

Content Marketing for Nonprofits: A Communications Map for Engaging Your Community, Becoming a Favorite Cause, and Raising More Money

Measuring the Networked Nonprofit

Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity

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