(Sean Stannard-Stockton is on vacation. This is a guest post from Jacob Harold, a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.)
It’s easier to figure out which inkjet printer to buy than how to write a smart check to fight homelessness. In an information age, philanthropy is caught in a strange kind of information vacuum.
To return to the toolbox metaphor in the previous post, where can we find a flashlight? Where do we get some useful information that could help donors make some better decisions? (In a future post I’ll talk about how we might make sure the information actually gets used by donors.)
One source is obvious: we should get information about nonprofits from nonprofits. In a sense, we already do: we can get financial data from the nonprofits via the IRS and Guidestar. And we can get marketing materials from the nonprofit itself—usually some generalities and a few anecdotes. But what about the substance of the work—the day-to-day struggles best summarized in an articulated strategy and whatever quantitative and qualitative measures of progress the nonprofit uses?
It is a great irony that the nonprofit sector, which has done so much to bring openness and transparency to the world, has so struggled to “open its programmatic books.” The nonprofit community (including foundations) has a ways to go, but new tools have emerged and are helping nonprofits capture and share their programmatic data.
Constituents offer a promising source of information about nonprofits. Volunteers, experts, peers, and (God forbid!), the final beneficiaries of a nonprofit’s work all offer unique and potentially meaningful insights into an organization’s effectiveness. Tapping these new sources of information will be no easy task, but in the end they may prove to provide more light than we could ever need.