Do Nonprofits Trust People?

A new blog I’ve been following, LifeYears, asks an interesting question today:

Non-profits seem sceptical towards outcome-based indicators of how effective different initiatives and projects are. Is this because they are afraid of what “ordinary people” would think and do if they had this information? And if so, could such a worry be rational?

The author, Ole Rogeberg, poses the question very seriously without passing judgment:

Personally, I hope (and want to believe) that outcome-based indicators would make the connection between giving and accomplishing stronger, that people would not just give in order to “do a good deed” but also start giving to “have an impact on malnutrition” or “reduce malaria” etc. But other people might believe that the consequences would be different. But other people might believe that the consequences would be different. Two possible worries that immediately come to mind:

  • Myopic funding: The more concrete, short-term and certain a program was according to its outcome indicator, the more funding it might receive. This might make it easy to get funding for vaccines and malaria nets, but hard to get funding for investments and development in health infrastructure, education, human rights work with women, etc.
  • Over-focused funding: Some measures may catch the public’s interest far more than others (“go viral”), and this might lead to large shares of funds going to these areas – not because the need is the largest or the impact the greatest, but simply because the indicator is catchy in some way.

Ole ends:

Even if you personally don’t see the problem – how can we answer this fear and develop indicators that don’t have excessive (largely unintended) negative consequences?

Important questions. Change is difficult and often has unintended consequences. Many, many people are resistant to my calls for more measurement and analysis of nonprofit outcomes. How can we handle their concerns? Or might their concerns be right?

Powered by ScribeFire.


  1. organizations depend upon outside financial support for their organizations. Due to the fact that the federal or state government may place restrictions or requirements on an organization receiving its funding, some choose not to accept government funding. However, unless self-supporting, the more that an organization is dependent on annual fund raising, the more the influence on what it does by outside influences.

    Strategic Planning is a key component to utilize in implementing your annual giving campaign for your organization’s mission. Your brand and message should be evaluated annually and adapted to reach the organization, its supporters and the community it serves.
    If you want a Generation O’s point of view. He has done a cartoon at:

  2. Additional perspective: some (certainly not all) nonprofits operate under a romanticized view of themselves. They do not want to be held to basic standards of competence and have rationalized that any critical evaluation by outsiders would place demands on them that they should not be responsible for meeting.

  3. That’s true. It is also true that some for-profit publicly traded companies don’t like to be held accountable to shareholders.

  4. young staffer says:

    I think a lot of this is just the expected resistance to changing the status quo. This wouldn’t be a meaningful change in the way we give if it didn’t change the distribution of dollars. And anyone who is successful now at getting those dollars is reasonably wary of a change in the system because it might redistribute dollars away from them. The real challenge, I think, is that an INTENDED outcome of this process is that giving patterns and the distribution of dollars to nonprofits will change. That means some “losers” as well as some “winners.”

    What we hope happens is those organizations who lose dollars initially can adapt to the changing incentives. Eventually, the whole sector becomes more efficient and effective as a result of a system based on having more concrete measures.

    The problem for any given organization is that even if you are reasonably certain you could adapt and still raise the dollars you need under a new system, you definitely know how to get those dollars under the current system. There just are no guarantees in a changed world; you can’t be certain that you will be a “winner” in a world after the paradigm shift.

    What that suggests to me is that you have to start with those who have the most to gain from a changing system — newer organizations and those with readily “measurable” outcomes who might see a real boost in giving if they shared that information. You can also begin to make headway with organizations that are confident enough and stable enough that they see little cost in experimenting with a new paradigm.

    Also: when it comes to unexpected consequences, well that’s just part of change. Of course there will be unintended outcomes. As we discover them, we will have to devise new ways to refine the system and to mitigate the negatives as they arise. A changed paradigm for giving is going to evolve; it’s not going to arrive in some perfected form.

  5. Oh, yes! I agree. To my observation, the rhetoric surrounding it is different. Publicly traded companies tend to claim expertise or the need to maintain trade secrets. They rarely claim that they are just “good”, and, therefore, beyond scrutiny.