Friday, February 7, 2014

Technology is an Important tool for Charities that Want to be more Mission Driven

This was originally posted as Transforming Charities into Being More Mission Driven with the Help of Technology on TechSoup.

US charities of almost every size  (although especially the 50% of them whose budgets are $50,000 or less) complain of tremendous resource scarcity as they try to help solve some of our world’s most pressing problems. The movement to encourage charities to become more outcome focused (and thereby mission driven) has been seriously hampered by these resource constraints. More specifically, how can you build a performance management system in your organization to measure outcome indicators and focus staffs' efforts on your mission, if there is no funding to do so? More and more funders are asking for this kind of information, but most of them still provide nothing (money or expertise) to make it possible to manage and measure performance. The typical response of most charities is to try and repackage existing data to meet the rising requirements. In other words, we continue to promulgate a “garbage in, garbage out” system and meaningful reporting on results remains a distant goal.

There are some hopeful signs to help charities overcome this dilemma and become early adopters of building internal systems to become truly high performing nonprofits that provide the greatest social value (i.e. meaningful change in communities and people’s lives). One effort to help can be found in a letter that I signed, along with my colleagues at Guidestar and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. It is called the overhead myth letter and can be found here. This letter can be used with foundation and individual funders to say, we need more overhead to build the infrastructure to measure our outcomes. Then we can provide you with the most meaningful measure of our performance rather than just secondary data on financial inputs.

Another great effort can be found in the work of a web site called PerformWell. The agencies working on this site are attempting to assist charities in identifying good outcome indicators based upon evidence based models that have been proven to work in specific cause areas. You can check them out here. In addition, I believe a relatively low cost tool that is nearly universal in applicability for measuring outcomes is via surveys of beneficiaries (sometimes called constituent voice). Keystone Accountability is working to create a web site of tools to help charities implement meaningful surveys. They offer a free tool you can check out (here) as a starting point. Furthermore, one of the funders of PerformWell is a group called Social Solutions. They provide software and consulting assistance to help you implement an outcome focused performance management tool.

We at Charity Navigator are hoping to develop a resource directory of the aforementioned and other tools for charities to help them get on the road to better results. To learn about how we have begun to evaluate charities' results reporting, read our one page summary (here) and have a look at the 600+ charities we have already evaluated on these new results reporting metrics (here).

Finally, we believe that all of these resources reflect the power that technology is playing in helping charities to become more performance driven and results focused by driving down costs and increasing the ability to compile and manage data much more quickly and easily. We urge you to take the perspective of doing “whatever it takes” to find the tools, expertise and funding to get on the road to measuring and managing your programs in the most meaningful way possible so that you can help more people and communities. I assume that all of you who are reading this share the mission as members and/or supporters of the nonprofit sector. I commend all of you for the good works you do each day in meeting that mission. I hope that you can find new ways to use technology more than ever to make your outcomes even more profound!


Bradley Good said...

One of the challenges is that, for the most part, every charity has their own (often expensive and not interconnected) set of systems. To track volunteers, donors, online event planning, donation processing, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Online donations only account for about 7% of all donations. It seems that the sector has not been transformed like the music, film, publishing industries.

Any viable solution would have to address the needs of all key stakeholders. This would have to included those of Individuals, nonprofits, companies, and foster the formation of Collaborative Groups.

The military servicemen and women area alone has over 40,000 organizations purporting to serve them. This is representative of the industry overall, and hopefully will be addressed with the advent of one go-to destination.

Ken, do you think one will rise up?

Ken Berger said...


I am not entirely certain I understand your question. If you are asking if there will be a go to destination for charitable giving online, I submit to you it already exists - Charity Navigator!

If you are asking about a go to Collaborative Group by cause area, the nonprofit sector has many such groups that are essentially trade associations. They do not seem like a viable vehicle for what I think you are getting at. I

I think we need to focus our primary effort right now on getting charities to learn how to use technology to help them measure their results and thereby help more people and communities. Then we can weed out the good and bad of those 40,000 organizations you mention as a case in point.


Andrew Stanley said...


You bring up some really good points. I think nonprofits suffer from disparate IT systems, which makes it extremely difficult to understand what is working and why.

The more software tools that emerge the more difficult it is for nonprofits to navigate through these tools.

It is imperative for organizations to have a simple unified system for communication and data management. What tools do you think are the frontrunners?

How do we consolidate organizations focusing on the same issues? Should we?

Bradley Good said...

I think the top five issues facing the industry are:

1. Limited Credible Go-to Destinations
Looking around, there are very few, if any, credible go-to-destinations for people to get involved in a number of important issues; to help veterans and military servicemen and women, animals, disadvantaged children, the environment, human trafficking.

2. Non-Profits Have Too Many Isolated Systems
Nearly every non-profit has a donor relationship management system, volunteer management system, online event planning and donation processing system. Meanwhile they are also trying to reach people on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites. They are using far too many standalone, siloed systems and data.

3. Costly Charity Websites, But No Vibrant Communities
Even when a charity spends tens of millions of dollars on their website, they are still not able to develop vibrate communities of people around the issues they care about. Just look at websites for Susan G. Komen and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. St Jude's site is amazing, but the ability and value for individuals and companies/employees to become involved is limited.

4. Companies Have Different Systems to Track Employee Volunteerism and Donations
Companies have costly systems in varying countries. Such systems are ineffective at enabling the companies to show what they have accomplished, and there is often a primary focus on PR. Most companies guilt employees into volunteering or donating, rather than inspiring and supporting them to do so.

5. Individuals Inconvenienced and Without Power
Individuals do not like having to visit a new charity site every time they want to donate or volunteer. It's difficult to learn each site's navigation, and keeping track of receipts for taxes is a pain. Individuals are not involved in the conversation. Instead they are being talked to by the charities via mail, email, Facebook, and Twitter. It's all junk mail to them. And, often they feel powerless to develop something around a cause they care about.

Then, there are the issues facing all the stakeholders. I do think the above is important to realize first. Charity Navigator is amazing, but it does not address the above. A single platform that satisfies all stakeholder interests is needed. Does that sound reasonable?

Gretchen Barry said...

There is a fairly new cloud-based application called NonProfitEasy ( It's fully integrated, manages just about every stakeholder you can imagine as well as events, communication, etc. It's also very affordable and geared toward the small to -mid-sized organizations that are often left managing by spreadsheet. It's a good option for budget challenged nonprofits.

Ken Berger said...


Regarding your "top five issues", there is a lot I agree with regarding the problems you identify. However the notion of one site to fix all of these challenges sounds like yet another "Big idea" that may not be realistic. In the words of the Beatles, "we'd all love to see the plans"!