I wrote yesterday about the Chronicle of Philanthropy article about Great Nonprofits. In the article, some people voice the criticism that the site has just positive reviews. So I emailed founder Perla Ni and put the criticism to her.
(Full Disclosure: Perla is a friend of mine. I know her professionally, but I also went to a party at her house earlier this month. Also, the photo of me that appears in the Chronicle of Philanthropy article is from when I volunteered at a Great Nonprofits event a few months ago. Clearly, I’m not the person to argue the merits of Great Nonprofits. So I’ll let Perla’s response to my question speak for itself. If readers have further questions, I’m sure Perla will respond in the comments section.)
Sean: “The criticism I know that you will hear and I will for writing about your project, will be that all the reviews are positive. The lowest rating on the site for a nonprofit with two or more reviews is 4+. How would you respond to someone who complains about the lack of negative reviews?
Great question. The answer is long – but I think your question deserves a full answer.
First, your readers shouldn’t look at the star ratings so much. It’s a short-hand really and cannot fully reflect the nuances of someone’s opinion about a nonprofit. Unlike product reviews, for instance, where the product is supposed to do a specific thing, nonprofits do a lot of different things sometimes and so it’s much more valuable to read the full review, especially the part on the “Great” things about the organization as well as “How to make it even better” which offers very concrete ideas for how the nonprofit can make its programs/services better.
Secondly, we have a selection bias right now in 2 ways because we’re just starting out.
1. As you’d expect, nonprofits that feel confident about their programs/services are more likely to participate on a website like ours. Though “consumer reviews” are standard now in just about every other sector – restaurant reviews, book reviews, car reviews, hotel reviews, movie reviews – it’s a new concept in the nonprofit world.
And so only the nonprofits that feel pretty confident about the quality of their services/programs are going to participate. My theory is that these probably are nonprofits that do indeed provide better than average programs/services.
2. Because since we’re starting out and the larger world of nonprofit stakeholders hasn’t heard of us, we rely on the nonprofits to get the word out to their clients, volunteers, donors and other stakeholders.
And the natural inclination is to ask one’s most trusted and closest stakeholders to write a review. But in time – as with anything on the internet – because the information is so readily available and transparent, other stakeholders become aware of the site, they will chime in and react to the reviews on the site. There’s a counterbalancing effect on the web because information is so transparent. People tend to feel more free, in fact, to disagree online than in person.
So in time, those two selection biases should correct itself in time.
Now, there’s a third bias that will continue even when the site gets more counterbalancing reviews. It’s the psychological tendency that people remember good experiences more strongly than negative experiences. This is well documented in psychology studies – and it’s the reason why the average review about consumer products is not 3 out of 5, but 3.4 out of 5. But this is still probably more accurate than the “Expert” reviews (ie: staff writers for consumer products magazines) where the average rating is 4 out of 5.
I hope that helps.