After many years as a consultant, I'm still periodicall surprised when working with some corporate or private foundation giving programs. I see that despite tough economic times, and the scarcity of funding for worthy causes, donors too often give money to questionable programs.
Now, don't get me wrong. Most foundations and corporations give the lion's share of their money to charities with good track records. This boosts the chance that their money will be well spent. But even giving to proven performers does not guarantee that money for new programs will be well spent, especially in today's topsy-turvy world.
Charities too often lack a comprehensive evaluation plan when they request money for a new program. In other words, how will a donor know its money is actually buying the bill of goods being sold?
Good program-development professionals build a high-quality evaluation plan into all their programs, whether new or old. In fact, if an agency will be seeking outside money for a program, it's always a good idea to evaluate it before submission to a funding source, so preliminary results can be offered.
Unfortunately, many charities that deal with social problems say their programs do not readily lend themselves to evaluation. They naively ask how they can be expected to evaluate changes in attitude, increases in self-esteem, greater appreciation of art, and so on. Simply offering any program at all to inner-city youth or to the homeless, according to people taking this approach, is enough to warrant funding.
Unfortunately, this lack of quality program evaluation is encouraged every time a company or foundation does not demand strict standards of accountability, including evaluation of programmatic results. Donors often complain about how much money it takes to do quality evaluations, which, in turn, take money away from helping more people.
My response to that argument is, "helping more people do what?" Without proper, and appropriate, evaluation, you never know what is being accomplished. Nor will program developers be able to apply the knowledge that comes from careful evaluations.
One of the more successful non-profits, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, is able to attract so much money precisely because their programs work -- and they can prove it. Each national initiative has a built-in evaluation component.
I remember working with a statewide Boys and Girls Clubs organization and needing some program statistics for a planned capital campaign. I was shown program evaluation data documenting significant increases in grade point averages for members involved in the after-school tutoring program. I was given national data showing the lifelong impact of programs. This and other documentation was impressive enough to help the campaign soar $1 million over its $3.5 million goal.
Many things can be done to encourage more -- and better -- evaluations by non-profits.
For one, funding sources such as corporations and private foundations should require major programs to be more rigorously evaluated. However, they must be willing to provide more money to ensure that this is done properly, like some exemplary federal programs require.
Other aspects of evaluation can be improved, too. Next week we'll look at some suggestions from the field.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.