High Performance vs. High Impact Nonprofits

Yesterday I was part of a conversation about how to define a high performance nonprofit. One issue that came up was whether we were talking about “high performance” or “high impact”. Now bear with me, this isn’t semantics, it is critically important.

A high performance nonprofit is a very well run organization. It has outstanding leadership, clear goals, an ethic of monitoring performance and making adjustments as needed, and it is financially healthy.

A high impact nonprofit is one whose efforts have been proven to cause sustainable, positive change.

Impact can be seen only in retrospect. Often many years later. Performance can be directly observed.

I think high impact nonprofits are the holy grail of philanthropy. But like any holy grail, it is something to journey towards, not something you demand now.

Guess what, nonprofits need funding during their entire lifespan as they head towards high impact status. The ones that get there are not the ones that have the best programs, they are the ones that are the highest performing organizations. High performing organizations are robust and flexible enough to dump programs that don’t work and adopt those approaches that work best. Weak organizations that happen to have a great program are not able to deliver the program with fidelity, are not able to scale the program and are not able to adapt to changing conditions.

As a field, philanthropy needs to focus on indentifying and funding high performance nonprofits. This was my point during my debate with Paul Brest earlier this year. This is my point when I reject overhead expense ratios as a relevant evaluation metric. This is my point when I ague that nonprofits should pay their employees better. This is my point when I call for “philanthropic equity” funding. This is my point when I argue that the Social Innovation Fund may encourage foundations to supply growth capital.

Currently, the field of philanthropy rejects performance in favor of evidence of impact. Philanthropy likes to talk about great programs, but forgets that only high performance organizations are in position to deliver great programs consistently.

It is time for us to reject the idea that great programs run themselves.


  1. Jeff Mason says:

    Well said Sean! Understanding the distinction you have clearly articulated is critical to improving how funds flow into the nonprofit sector.

  2. Ken Berger says:

    Great Sean, but two points of clarification:

    1. I think philanthropy does not really look for impact (as correctly defined above), they look for outputs (they count the number of things provided rather than the quality, sustainability, etc.).
    2. One additional critical component to be high performing is to have leadership that embraces accountability and transparency as a front and center priority.

  3. Well stated for a concept that I sometimes have trouble getting across to my clients. They have such passion in trying to reach the largest number of beneficiaries as possible, that they forget that they have to be run well in the first place! While I think that the ultimate goal is to find a balance with both high performance and high impact, I feel that performance does need to come first. Cheers!

  4. Dan says:

    To Ken’s point “One additional critical component to be high performing is to have leadership that embraces accountability and transparency as a front and center priority.”

    If only Charity Navigator could somehow account for this. It never ceases to amaze me when a donor, or supporter, counters a negative critique of leadership, “but they have 4 stars…”

  5. Ken,
    I agree on both points. I highlighted Impact instead of Outputs, because regardless of what philanthropy actually looks at, they strive for impact and I’m suggesting they strive for high performance. On point two, I agree completely. I actually had transparency in my first draft, but dropped it to offer a shorter description.

  6. Dan, maybe Ken will address your point. I know he agrees with you.

  7. Mario Morino says:

    Sean, thanks for making the distinction between “high performance” and “high impact.” I’d ask you to consider a further delineation that takes this one premise into account: “good operating performance” does not necessarily translate to ‘good social benefit and results,” and I’m talking short-term in terms of tangible benefit for those served.

    Let me share this analogy from my corporate life and the relationship between information technology and benefit to the enterprise. Many times we would see very well-run operations–efficient, crisp, etc., that provided little value to the enterprise, while others which appeared, on the surface, to be much more chaotic, reactive, etc., were serving the needs much more effectively. While both were disciplined and rigorous in their work, the former lost sight of the end purpose, while the latter made sure they were “doing the right things, versus doing things right.” And, my experience suggests the same is often true in the nonprofit sector.

    As this discussion goes forward, I only hope we never lose sight that the discussion of “high performance” should be always be in the context of the benefit/value for those served. It can be alluring to focus on operational effectiveness, while losing sight of what it is all about. And, this is why it gives me great concern that some are seeking to use “operational metrics” as a way to assess nonprofits.

    At VPP, one of the refrains that helps keep us focused is the jolting reminder to “don’t forget this is about the children and youth.”

    Best, Mario

  8. Eva Guenther says:

    Hi Sean,
    Thanks for your post and recognizing the fact that not just businesses can be “high-performing” but non-profits can be as well. I always get frustrated when that is cited as one of the differentiators between businesses and non-profit. We should strive for both a well run, high-performing non-profit and programs that demonstrate outcomes, impact.

  9. Laura Deaton says:

    I love this discussion and have a couple of thoughts that come from reading the comments above.
    (1) Performance measurement needs to be defined. I’d agree with Mario that one measure is impact to those served, but I’m equally certain that a traditional customer satisfaction survey won’t measure the fundament changes in knowledge, attitude, skills, behavior, or condition that have happened as a result of the programs. Well-researched benchmarks, well-written goals, and progress dashboards are great “business” tools that can be used in the nonprofit sector to help.
    (2) There’s a great opportunity, and perhaps necessity, for nonprofits to become higher performing right now as resources continue to tighten. Not only is it time to consider eliminating less outcome-focused programs, but it is also a time to scale back and become a lean-mean mission-focused machine. As with all businesses (we seem to forget that nonprofits are businesses, too), nonprofits are having to make tough decisions. Those who plan for those tough times can do more than ride them out…they can use them to get stronger.

  10. Just wanted to join the conversation so I can one, thank Sean for starting it, and two, say “Amen,” to Mario.

  11. Mitch Nauffts says:

    Hats off to Mario in his comment above for so ably articulating what I was stumbling around in our fun Twitter exchange a little while ago. Mario’s point bears repeating:

    “As this discussion goes forward, I only hope we never lose sight that the discussion of ‘high performance’ should always be in the context of the benefit/value for those served. It can be alluring to focus on operational effectiveness, while losing sight of what it is all about….”

    Kudos, Sean, on another thought-provoking post and stimulating discussion.

  12. Mario, I completely agree. When I say “high performing” I’m talking about a more robust definition than simply “well run”. IBM for instance is famous for its well run management structure. Google however, seems to be an equally or higher performing organization even though they do “crazy” things like let their employees spend 20% of their time on pet projects.

    One assumption my post makes is that a high performing organization will be one that tracks whether its programs are actually making a difference in the population they serve and adapt if they find they are not. That attribute I think is a critical defining factor of a high performing organization.

    An organization that efficiently delivered a program that wasn’t making a difference and either did not check to see if it was working or refused to change when the realized the flaw, would not be a high performing organization in my mind.

  13. George Overholser says:

    I would simply add that one hallmark of high performance is the presence of a clear road map to high impact.

  14. Crossroads says:


    I would agree with your overall post, however I would (as someone who runs / advises NGOs in China) add a few elements of context that I believe are important.

    1) High performing org needs to have high impact programs within its portfolio, but not all high impact programs are the result of a high performing organization. Within my own group, we are consistently looking to develop high impact programs, stabilize them, add more layers on top, stabilize, and so on. We see the need for impact in everything we do, but not all programs will perform the same.

    2) I would argue that there are many instances where you can see results right away. In China, where the NPO/ NGO sector is in v2.5, it is possible to see gains within a matter of months as the program may be entirely new, or there may be completely new markets that can be measured.

    3) Finally, it is important to continually improve not only the performance of the programs following a measurement, but also to update the measurements themselves. As a program goes from startup to maturity, the measurements need to change, and need to be reported in the correct way.


  15. Ken Berger says:

    Sean and Dan,

    We are in the process of working to integrate accountability & transparency measures into our rating system. Hopefully soon thereafter we will also be implementing measures to indicate the potential to provide social value. Further, we will also use this as an opportunity to revise our existing financial measures as needed. I am working as fast as I can to make it so.

    Ken Berger, Charity Navigator

  16. Jenn says:

    Dan Pallotta speaks to this idea of employee compensation and high impact quite articulately in his book Uncharitable. It’s absurd to expect a nonprofit to achieve high impact when they’re constantly catering to those expecting high performance in the numbers. Nonprofits are not for-profits; they are structured differently with different goals and priorities. It is unfair to judge them by the same standards.

    Very well said, Sean. This is something that definitely needs more attention, especially with sites like Charity Navigator only focusing on the raw numbers and not the qualitative impact.

  17. Crossroads,
    You make an important point that not all high performing organizations end up creating high impact. I would suggest that the same is true in the for-profit space where even high performing organizations sometimes end up pursuing the wrong products, markets, etc.

    My point is that today, philanthropy basically ignores the relevancy of high performing organization and focuses instead of trying to identify high impact programs. I think instead philanthropy should prioritize the capitalization of high performing nonprofits as without a robust nonprofit ecosystem, I think the hunt for high impact projects is a fools errand.

    I would go so far as to suggest that the limited support for high performing nonprofits is THE major constraint to the nonprofit sector maximizing impact.

  18. Thanks Jenn,
    I would only add that Charity Navigator’s CEO Ken Berger has been active in the comments section of this thread and I believe that he is remaking CN so that it can better rank true performance.

  19. Crossroads says:


    Fair point, and I would agree that it is a fools errand in many regards, but that is because all too often the measure of a impact is tied to overhead and “efficiency”.


  20. Tony Wang says:

    Sean, great post – I think you’re right that there is a distinction between high performance and high impact. One example that highlights the difference for me is the distinction between funders of social entrepreneurship and funders who subscribe to a theory of change. Many funders of SE look for performance characteristics, of which impact is reflected in the organization, but not explicitly determined by a theory of change, while the metrics the latter uses are determined by the theory of change and not on a case-by-case basis.

    I think there’s probably value in both approaches – it’s of real concern when the field sways to much to one extreme or the other (high performance with no impact and high impact with no performance). And I think Paul would probably agree, as he did with Bill Somerville, that there’s nothing wrong with supporting high performing organizations – but that ultimately, it should be rooted in some sort of larger theory about how you want to be strategic with your philanthropy.

  21. I appreciate these contributions and maybe especially the sense purpose that characterizes this debate. There is a great deal of consensus here that would not be difficult to articulate.

    But I want to add a general caution. Einstein famously said that problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them. I believe that this discussion needs to push harder to get to another level. We use good words: ‘impact’, ‘accountability’, ‘high performance’. At the level of abstraction that they are being used, it is easy to subscribe to them. I believe that we run the risk that the consensus here becomes a more sophisticated and slightly more efficient version of the problems that brought us here.

    When I think along these lines, here are some of the questions that come to mind:

    Why is it possible to be having this discussion — and by this discussion I mean the larger ‘project’ of high impact philanthropy — without a more systematic effort to include the voices of those meant to benefit?

    Why is it that we have not developed a more inclusive and effective process of decision-making (as opposed to debating) for our field?

    Given how relatively comfortable, educated and privileged we are, and given the choices that we have made to spend professional lives of service, why are we not more self-critical?

    My own conviction is that someday soon, when people look back they will be shocked to recall a time when organized philanthropy did not manage and measure in responsive dialogue with those meant to benefit.

  22. I want to add another view and a new dimension to Laura’s first comment about the limitations of traditional customer satisfaction in measuring social outcomes.

    The alternative view is that it is indeed possible for customer satisfaction to measure outcomes – it is just a question of how it is done. We might agree that there is good and bad ‘customer satisfaction’, and that the term itself is not the right term. At my organization we adapt the techniques of customer satisfaction to to measure outcomes (and to do more). We call it constituency voice or constituency feedback.

    The new dimension is that the prime objective of creating systematic feedback loops is not to extract data — although that is valuable and exciting. It is to close the loop by engaging in ongoing mutually accountable dialogues with primary constituents.

  23. Laura Deaton says:

    David – I actually agree with you about customer satisfaction. What I meant is that many organizations send out an annual Likert-scale customer satisfaction tool, get positive scores, and then say that this demonstrates the difference they’ve made in the community. I actually believe that measuring “real” customer satisfaction is useful, and important – not only as an engagement strategy – but also as a product improvement tool, but that it must be done systematically, and be much more than a one-time written tool that allows an organization to say, “Look how much our customers/program participants/constituents love us!” Instead, as you’ve suggested, I believe that the people who are served by the organization should be involved at all levels, including governance and Board membership. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be having this discussion without them. Instead they would be at the table, and the “us” v. “them” lines would begin to blur, and true service could begin.

  24. Jeff Mason says:

    I think Sean’s definition incorporates much of what has been said at a high-level. As we delve into details there is need for clarification.

    High performing orgs have clear goals that if achieved will generate social value. To Mario’s point, the goal has to be about positively affecting the lives of those served. High performing orgs have a strategy for achieving their goals. High performing orgs work with outcome focused intent. High performing orgs diligently collect quality data from a variety of sources. To David’s point, this data collection includes constituent feedback – done correctly. High performing orgs use this data to understand if their efforts are effective or not. And, with an understanding of what’s working and what’s not working high performing orgs make ongoing adjustments to continuously improve. Orgs that don’t do these things are unlikely to ever be impactful (proven to have caused sustainable, positive change).

  25. David Hunter says:

    This discussion is getting richer and, in my view, more pertenant to the fundamental issue that motivated the founders of the Alliance for effective Social Investing in the first place: namely, the perspective that the nonprofit sector (some folks call it the social sector), is the safety net, the last basis for hope, of those people who are most disenfranchised, most disconnected from positive institutions, most structurally marginalized, most impoverished, and most desperate. As such it is not tolerable that the sector be, as in that group’s view it largely is, lacking in evidence that most of its organizations are accomplishing anything that translates into improved lives and prospects for the people they are intended to help.

    How can this be true of the social sector? One large (though not the only) reason is that the preponderance of funders don’t demand anything different. The name of the Alliance is not casually chosen: the idea is for social investing to become more effective…and that this will translate into a selective pressure on the nonprofit sector to become more effective in actually helping people who most need help to improve their lives.

    In this context, I think the distinction that Sean makes between “high performance” and “high impact” nonprofits is conceptually precise but in a practical sense not of much help…a spurious precision if you will. In the nonprofit sector – which, it is useful to recall, was specifically created to address public needs – what pragmatic sense does it make to applaud “high performance” that does not include a notion of effectiveness in meeting public needs and improving the conditions or consequences of those needs? To do so trivializes the concept of “high performance”…which is at least an aspect of what I took Mario to be saying.

    So: I return to one of the initial documents folks involved in starting up the Alliance were asked to consider. Namely, the one that lays out key domains for assessing how risky a social investment in a specific nonprofit organization is – with regard to the question of the likelihood that the investment will yield social value. The approach taken in that document includes the assessment of performance data generation and its tactical and strategic uses (to improve the connection between staff/volunteer activities and outcomes/impacts); information about organizational capacities to work reliably, consistently, and at high levels of quality; and of course outcome and impact data. In my experience, organizations that rate highly in these areas inevitably have strong leaders and staff (although, significantly, the obverse quite often is not the case). That is one reason the tool doesn’t focus on the latter areas of iorganizatonal capacity.

    For better or for worse, it is this logic that has kept some of us working on and devoted to improving that assessment in consultation with numerous kind people who have taken the trouble to review and critique it. In fact, along with Jeff Mason and Ken Berger I will be alpha-testing the assessment with about ten nonprofits over the coming month and getting their feedback on how accurate it is – and how useful it is in helping them diagnose areas in which they need to improve to increase the probability that indeed they are creating social value – meeting public needs measurably, reliably, sustainably (or are on the right track for getting there).

    I am grateful to all particpants in the Alliance and others who have engaged in this conversation. It is is helping me sort through these matters and, I believe, it is an essential conversation for the country and its future.

    David Hunter

  26. Ken Berger says:

    I understand that the discussion about performance management and impact has been going on for quite some time. The difference today is that we are getting very close to actually implementing tools on a much wider scale to evaluate the potential of nonprofits to create social value. As we move forward, and the details of each effort are more closely scrutinized, the debate is likely to get more and more heated. The stakes are very high and there are vested interests who are likely to put up tremendous resistance. I remain hopeful that the perfect or the crappy does not kill the good.

  27. Laura Deaton says:

    I just finished reading Neel Hajra’s blog about the StrategyLab sponsored by Independent Sector last week. Interestingly, he identified that what seemed to emerge from the meeting was a consensus around the elements of a well-performing sector. He didn’t share the specifics, but I’ll be curious to see if they parallel/complement the developing toolkit focused on high performing organizations, and if those discussions are broadened to get input from a wider cross-section of the sector.

  28. David, very important point about the way the beneficiaries of nonprofits are being left out of this discussion. I’d suggest that most for-profit companies also leave their customers out of the discussion regarding how to run their business. However, most High Performing for-profits understand the critically important need to involve customer input in organizational decision making.

  29. Crossroads says:

    @David/ Sean.

    CAnnot agree more on measuring from the viewpoint of the benefactor.

    We do it FOR EVERY program as it is so critical to our ability to program effectively, measure results, make corrections, and know when to scale to the next steps.

    I would also argue that doing an impact analysis up front is perhaps just as important as well.


  30. Carla Javits says:

    Terrific discussion of performance and impact. REDF has been committed to on-the-ground efforts that help Bay Area nonprofits achieve both for a decade. The lessons we’ve learned from the school of hard knocks were reflected in Mario Marino’s admonition about “doing the right things, versus doing things right”; and reminded me of the useful and practical perspective offered by McLeod and Crutchfield in their book “Forces for Good”. They assess the characteristics shared by nonprofits that have already achieved tremendous impact – Habitat, Teach for America, etc. It’s worth re-reading. Their conclusions about the myths and realities of the performance of high impact nonprofits include: MYTHS (‘doing the right things’): perfect management, high rating on conventional metrics (among others). REALITIES (‘doing things right’): advocate and serve; make markets work; inspire evangelists, nurture networks, master the art of adaptation, share leadership.

  31. Sean, I think the comparison your argument calls for is with high performing for-profits. The data shows a very clear correlation between high levels of customer loyalty, and growth and profits.

    Laura, I agree with your points that build on mine about customer satisfaction done properly. My view is that we urgently need to improve and expand on constituency feedback practices in the sector. When you discuss these ideas with nonprofit sector leaders, they tend to agree (see our white paper on constituency voice and US human service organizations at

    The next frontier for Constituency Voice is to develop comparative feedback data sets. And to get them published so that we can increase the incentives for organizations to take feedback seriously. For a for profit analogy, see http://www.jdpower.com/. We are plugging away at this through a number of pilot efforts and would welcome advice and partnership!

    Everyone, I think this is a good discussion that is pushing hard in the right directions. It is clear that there is no simple answer here. A pluralistic narrative is emerging for me that carries at least three interlocking strands.

    There is a strand about the need for better evidence. The discussion is pushing out the who, what, where, when and how.

    There is a strand about structure and roles: how do / should key constituents feature in the structure of organizations? Board, staff, volunteers, beneficiaries, volunteers, champions, donors, competitors. The list goes on and the strand moves from the level of the organization to the larger ecosystem of organizations working on common problems. Parsing through the spectrum from ‘the organization’ to ‘the ecosystem’ is a critical task in this discussion.

    And there is a strand, at this point mostly implicit, about the theory of change that underlies notions of performance and impact. I suspect that as tough as it might be to do in an open forum like this one, we need to push out and debate our main assumptions. We have tried to do this at Keystone. You can see the results at http://www.keystoneaccountability.org/about/toc and also http://www.keystoneaccountability.org/node/34.

  32. Ginny Deerin says:

    The conversation about effective social investing in Washington last week was inspiring and encouraging. “WINGS for kids” was asked to the table to present an example of high performance. Hearing so many voices raised in support of driving more investment to high-performing nonprofits offers hope to those of us laboring out in the field to find sufficient funding.

    So often at WINGS, we find ourselves explaining why meaningful metrics are worth every penny we pay for our state-of-the-art performance management system. At times here in Charleston, S.C., we lose out in the competition for scarce funding dollars to other youth development programs who don’t measure performance, and are free to make vague and unproven claims about their impact

    In answer to the oft-posed question, is it too onerous for small and lean nonprofits like ours to undergo systematic measurement and monitoring of how well targeted outcomes are being achieved, I say absolutely not – but be prepared to make your case and defend yourself. As Sean Stannard-Stockton says, overhead expense ratios are not a relevant evaluation metric, but all too frequently, that’s how we’re judged.

  33. Ginny,
    I don’t know if it’s sad, shocking — or more likely both — but also stunning to read “At times…we lose out in the competition…to other youth development programs who don’t measure performance, and are free to make vague and unproven claims about their impact.”

    There ought to be a law against making unproven claims.

  34. I like to think of the issue here as essentially a debate over goals vs. execution. Of course, debating goals “vs.” execution in this sort of either/or fashion is a bit like having a debate about food vs. water. It is clear that either one without the other is going to be fairly problematic. As David Hunter pointed out, “high performance” that does not include a notion of meeting public needs (i.e. “impact”) is little more than meaningless efficiency. On the other hand, the most laudable of goals is not worth much without the effectiveness to deliver on those objectives efficiently and sustainably. The train of thought that seems to be emerging in the most recent comments is that these are really two halves of the same coin. Sean suggests that figuring out how to achieve high impact is really an inherent characteristic of high-performing organizations. So no matter at which end you start, it seems you eventually end up working back to the middle.
    Another way to look at this, rather than the “vs.” framework, might be from a framework of resource efficiency. By resource efficiency what I really mean is given a shortage of time and money, where are our efforts most effectively spent? (this is sort of a classic economics framework). From this view, it is seems more clear that organizations ought to be spending most of their time and efforts in improving organizational capacity than in strategic goal setting. If you are attempting to sail to Europe, you probably don’t need to spend as much time figuring out whether you are going to land in Paris or Lisbon as you do making sure that team has the skills to get you across the ocean. Although you may discover that Paris is a bit too far inland to be reached by sailboat, you are probably still better off than finding yourself in the middle of the sea and realizing that no one knows how to sail.

  35. David Hunter says:

    I appreciate the thrust of Mr At-Tauhidi’s comment, and won’t develop that line of thought inasmuch as he has indicated the direction sufficiently for folks to fill in the gaps.

    What concerns me is the commanding, self-confident tone of some other comments where the author clearly has a very incomplete grasp of the field or subject matter.

    Two examples:

    A number of people have asserted as fact that there are virtually no nonprofits with proven impacts. False. There aren’t hundreds, but there are quite a few if one looks. On my website I have links to about a dozen “evidence based” websites that publish evidence of effectiveness of specific programs and organizations delivering them in areas as diverse as juvenile justice, criminal justice, connecting kids to school, academic achievement and attainment, improving the prospects of kids in and aging out of foster care, preventing teenage pregnancy, workforce readiness and attachment to the workforce (of marginalized groups),etc.

    Then there is the “straw man” argument about kinds of evaluations that prove social impacts. Various comments contain irrelevant references to “double blind” studies (utterly inapproriate for all social service impact evaluations) and suggest that in the absence of extremely expensive “gold standard” randomized control trials we can’t say anything about impact. Thus with sleight-of-hand they dismiss the topic of the acute relevance of program evaluation efforts. However, anybody who has more than a smidgeon of knowledge about program evaluations knows there is a spectrum of evaluative efforts, many of which have something to teach us if we are looking for effective programs. Child Trends has just published a nice report on this continuum…I recommend it to anybody who cares to really understand these matters.

    These discussions – requiring some nod toward complexity – do not lend themselves to the “sound-bite” world of the blog. Hence I won’t try to elaborate on them. But I don’t think it’s wrong to ask those who are speaking so dispositively on these matters to take the time to get a solid grounding in them before attempting to persuade others of the worthiness of their views.

    David Hunter

  36. Muhammad, I love this comment because in his presentations regarding his book Money Well Spent, Paul Brest talks about King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as being “strategic philanthropists” in their funding of Columbus. My arguement to Paul was that the best thing to do is not study how to get to America (actually India) and then set out on that exact path with the exact tools needed according to your theory, but instead to build the most robust seafaring fleet possible. A high performance exploring team that is geared up to face the uncertain obstacles.

    I also appreciate your comment that “Sean suggests that figuring out how to achieve high impact is really an inherent characteristic of high-performing organizations.” This is of course my point. That high-impact organizations are the agents that figure out how to achieve impact. But it is clear from other comments that some of my posts have been interpreted to mean that I don’t think it is important for anyone to examine whether the efforts of high performance nonprofits are resulting in outcomes.

    I believe that this examination is a critical element of high performance. Without it, the robust seafaring fleet described above turns into a Monty Python skit of a Navy rowing (very efficiently!) in circles or even off the end of the earth.

  37. Sean,

    Thank you for starting this important discussion about how we can make sure that funding goes to those organizations most likely to improve people’s lives.

    There is no question that funding organizations that have proven impact, defined as having a randomized control trial done, is a pretty safe bet. As David Hunter points out, they most certainly do exist. But whether an organization has been proven to have an impact in the past, or never (since most organizations never have an expensive randomized control trial done), they have to be or become high performing in order for us to reasonably expect that people will benefit. Three characteristics strike me as absolutely critical if we are to have any confidence in an organization.

    First, the program models have to be reasonable within the context of available research. Sounds obvious perhaps, but here’s a real life example: An organization working with high risk teens (serious behavior problems) decides to give the young people volunteer mentors for the duration of up to three months, and it has a flimsy program structure in place to support the matches.

    Available research on mentoring makes clear, among other things, that 1) volunteer mentors can be successful with young people at lower risk, as opposed to this target population; 2) matches have to meet for a minimum of one year before outcomes appear, and those who fall apart after only a few months may not only be ineffective, they may cause harm; 3) it takes a great deal of training and support of both volunteer mentor and the young person in order to develop relationships to such levels of quality that they will benefit the teen. And even then, the benefits are modest. This program, in other words, would likely be doing harm. It is an absolute outrage that programs that completely ignore what is known, to the detriment of their clients, can possibly get even close to funding!

    Second, an organization must ensure – with the use of real-time data – that the program is implemented in accordance with the program model. Unless the program is implemented in the same, sound way across staff, sites and over time (until lessons suggest that changes to the model should be made), the expectation cannot possibly be that outcomes will materialize.

    The majority of organizations are – once they begin to track whether their programs are being implemented as intended – surprised to find that the difference between theory and practice is unacceptable and raises serious questions about whether the program can make a positive difference. High performing organizations then do what it takes to make implementation conform with the model. Most organizations don’t even keep track.

    Given the potential consequences of poorly implemented programming (HIV, child abuse and other negative outcomes may not be prevented, for instance, when better programming could have done so), how is it that we can continue to fund these programs that don’t even attempt to manage performance in programming? How can we accept that?

    Finally, while the above two characteristics may be enough during the initial phases of programming, once outcomes can reasonably be expected, they must be discussed. Again, David Hunter is right to point out that there are many levels of evaluative efforts that allow us to address the question: Does the program work? Just because a randomized control trial is out of the question does not mean the program should be incapable of saying something about how well it is achieving its outcomes. A high performing organization collects that data, learns and improves. Looking forward to your post on the topic.

    WINGS for Kids is not the only organization that has experienced losing the funding battle to those who make unsubstantiated claims. That tide needs to turn.

  38. David Hunter says:

    Kudos to Ingvild for delving deeper and better into these matters than is the norm in the blogosphere! Needless to say I agree with her.

  39. Ingvild,
    Excellent contribution. Thank you. As is true of most debates on this blog, I find that while we often feel we are far apart, we end up agreeing on a lot.

    David, I understand, rejects much of what I’ve put forward, but it seems he and I both find that we agree with much of what you’ve put forward in your comment.

    I’ve laid out what I see as the link between high performance and high impact in a new post here. I hope your colleagues at Social Solutions find my use of the “efforts to outcomes” vocabulary in line with your own views.

  40. First, let me start by saying how incredibly excited I am that a dialogue like this is even happening! As a practitioner in a non-profit org committed to being both evidenced and principle based to ensure that we are positively impacting the lives of the young people we serve, it feels reassuring that others are committed to further define and understand what this all means.
    For years working in the non-profit sector, I have asked myself the question “So what? What is the point, what are we really doing, what are we really changing?” I have asked these questions of myself as an individual, of my organization, of other non-profits, and of the whole sector of non-profit services.
    Having the privilege of working with young people and young adults who have already experienced so much violence and trauma, have been left out, locked up, ignored, and often feared by those who were supposed to guide them, demands that those questions have some real answers. Getting to those answers requires being really truthful about what we are doing, how we do it, if it is working or not, how we know, and how we push ourselves to get better and better because that is what our young people deserve from us. It requires having really hard conversations about the work, performance, outcomes, and what we have to give to drive toward excellence and real outcomes that shift life trajectories, not just fill a gap or an immediate need.
    If we aren’t willing to have those conversations, to truthfully look at our work, and know the answer those questions (as individuals, organizations, and as a sector)…we should not be in business.
    The debate about high performing and high impact must be thought of in absolute solidarity. If we are not willing to drive toward excellence to be high impact (even if we may never reach that status) then we should shut our doors. If we are willing, then we must push ourselves to be high performing at every level and throughout every functional area of the organization.
    It is time for non-profits to understand that we are responsible for ensuring high performance, continuously raising the bar for ourselves and those we serve, and committing to our individual and collective growth and improvement. It doesn’t take a dime to ask ourselves if what we are doing is making a difference, how we know, and what we need to do to be better. The cost on those we serve if we do not ask ourselves these questions and are not truthful with the answers is tremendous—feelings of hopelessness, that change is not possible, that real opportunities are inaccessible, that trusting and being trustworthy are fallacies—these are extremely high costs for all of us!
    It is also time for philanthropy to recognize that the business of non-profit business is not about any one single product or bottom line. Organizations cannot be considered high impact merely by the bottom line on their financials, charismatic leadership, or sheer size and visibility. Also, we must understand that the work cannot always be codified to an exact science and be reproduced by applying the same calculation. Life and the dynamic complexities of our environments always add other variables that through off even the most precise calculations.
    The business of non-profits, and those who lead and work within them, must be driven to work in ways that actually do have demonstrated positive impacts and must be committed to getting even better to best serve those for whom our organizations exist to serve.

  41. Anisha,
    Thanks for taking the time to add your voice. I found your comment deeply inspiring and have just elevated it to the front page of the blog.