Thursday, February 20, 2014

Social Sector CEO: Your GPS Knows the Secret for Accomplishing Greater Good

Every CEO knows a well-defined plan is a must; the ones most likely to achieve sustainable success actually test their plans rigorously, objectively, and continuously, carefully analyzing real-time data and  “recalculating” as needed. While this cycle is most often associated with the for-profit sector (particularly high-tech startups), my graduate work in Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) at Northwestern’s Medill School is showing me its value for the social sector. Two studies may be of interest to those who wish non-profits could emulate the best practices of successful for-profits -- to achieve greater good.

Benchmarking Evaluation in Foundations, a study published in The Foundation Review and conducted by the Center for Evaluation Innovation for the Evaluation Roundtable, reports foundations increased resources devoted to program evaluation between 2009 and 2012 – despite economic turbulence. Not only did half increase the relative amount of funding devoted to evaluation (compared to only 17% who decreased it), but the average number of foundation employees devoted to evaluation rose from 3.0 to 4.2. The authors suggest commitment to evaluation has become deeply rooted in the philanthropic sector, and is no passing fad. Their study offers hope that best practices of data-driven, for-profit entrepreneurship have the potential to take root in the non-profit sector -- since data-driven recalculating is only possible when there are data (and the resources to collect them). However, enthusiasm for collecting volumes of data is overwhelming the social sector's ability to use those collected data effectively, the study suggests, raising serious questions about the potential for evaluation to advance social change.
Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), in a separate and larger study, finds foundations are not yet getting the most out of these evaluation dollars because they still tend to use the data the same old way. GEO’s  Four Essentials for Evaluation reports most grantmakers continue to view evaluation as merely an accountability exercise rather than as a tool for learning – learning that allows well timed “recalculation” to maximize the social good achieved by each philanthropic dollar and that shares findings so others can avoid making the same mistakes (and replicate successes). GEO suggests effectiveness requires understanding what stakeholders need to do a better job, collection of data that speaks to stakeholder needs, and strategies to process data and share learnings continuously and in real time.

From these two articles, I believe social sector leaders must do 3 things today to realize the full potential of evaluation dollars:
  • Leverage technology – Evaluators, foundations, and grantees today can collaborate more easily than ever to collect data, analyze it, and recalculate in real-time. We must do it to ensure relevance and success.
  • Embrace mistakes and learn – Create a culture that actually practices open, honest dialogue, rewarding learning rather than silencing data-driven warnings to “recalculate.”
  • Be pragmatic – Methodological perfection is laudable, as is collecting comprehensive data. However, small scale, doable, pragmatic evaluations often provide the timely, critical, relevant insights that make the difference between success and failure. 
With charitable giving stuck at 2% of GDP for 4 decades despite mounting need, Eric Kessler of Arabella Advisors reminds us of the urgent need to “get the most out of every penny.” Evaluators have unique opportunities to be our social sector’s GPS – guiding the sector toward its intended, desired destinations with timely recalculations to maximize the impact of precious resources. That will truly advance greater good.

Debra L. Dodson, Ph.D., is former Director of Program Evaluation and Outcomes Measurement for the Girl Scouts of the USA. Previously she was a research faculty member at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, where she conducted research on the pressing political issues of the day. Her publications include The Impact of Women in Congress (Oxford University Press, 2006). Currently she is taking a sabbatical to learn how Integrated Marketing Communications (Medill, Northwestern University) can improve program evaluation/ research/ and communication in a digital world. Contact her on Twitter @Debra_L_Dodson.

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