Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What has Charity Navigator learned so far about how NGOs report on their results?

While I was working at Charity Navigator, I had wanted to write about what we had learned so far in our move to assess how NGOs report on their results (especially outcomes), but never had the time to do so. Now that I am an independent consultant in the start-up phase, there is (what I hope is) a slight lull before the tidal wave of work sweeps me back up again. To that end, I write this short blog post at the request of my friend and colleague David Bonbright. David’s pioneering work on Constituent Voice plays an important role in the new dimension to Charity Navigator’s rating system (results reporting). In fact, he wrote the first concept note draft with all of its elements and I then added my two cents to his million dollar insights (although he did not charge that much!).  

So below are a series of questions David has asked me to answer to give a sense of what Charity Navigator’s experience has been: 

  • How are NGOs responding to the results reporting dimension? 
The responses vary along a spectrum of discomfort and concern at one end, to encouragement and full support at the other end. Many are not even on the “spectrum” at all in that they fit a profile similar to what CN went through in 2011 when CN 2.0 was implemented (adding a governance dimension to the rating system that is called “Accountability & Transparency” on the CN web site). Essentially, most are completely unresponsive and show no reaction at all to this new results reporting dimension of the rating system. Why? To begin with, the information that CN is gathering on results reporting will not be rated for quite some time to come. In fact, CN informed me recently that they no longer are projecting what the implementation date will be for rating this information. Therefore, there is no sense of immediate urgency to have a closer look. Related to this reaction is the fact that the vast majority of NGOs (perhaps 90% of the 2,000 or so surveyed so far) do not respond to CN’s survey requests for information on their results reporting practices. Therefore, CN must rely on what is publically available on the NGOs website, which is often quite paltry when it comes to meaningful results reporting. 

For those who do respond at the discomfort and concern end of the spectrum, I believe it is predominantly a matter of ignorance about the details. Many NGO leaders who hold this view assume that CN is going to sit in judgement of the results of one charity against another and pick some list of outcome indicators that must be utilized. If that were so, this would indeed be a reason to be concerned about what CN is doing. However that is not the case! Whenever I would attend an NGO conference and explain what CN’s results reporting metrics actually encompass and how much it empowers the NGO to report in their own way, the vast majority move toward the supportive end of the spectrum. However, there are always some who hold fast to the view that ratings of any kind are too simplistic too truly capture their work, even (especially?) ratings from those they serve, which of course is the essence of the Constituent Voice part of the results reporting criteria.  Although I profoundly disagree with such a viewpoint (when you look at how CN is approaching this), that is a blog entry for another day. 

For those who respond at the positive end of the spectrum, the feedback has been a real boost to CNs sense of purpose and drive to get this new dimension in place as soon as possible. The quote that I think sums up this perspective was provided by Paul Brest (former head of the Hewlett Foundation) who, after reading the details of CN’s results reporting dimension, commented as follows: “This is the most important work going on in the nonprofit sector.” 
  • How are NGOs changing their practices as a result of CNs evolving rating system? 
All CN has at this point is anecdotal data. A subset of the 10% or so of NGOs that respond to the CN survey and individuals who walk up to me after my NGO presentations are indicating they are working hard to implement the best performance management and measurement systems they can to get better at reporting their results and meeting their mission. 

  • How has the whole outcome and “high performance” movement been touching NGOs. 
When I attend NGO conferences or read surveys on the subject (such as the recent one put out by the Center for Effective Philanthropy), all indications are that the vast majority of NGOs are making efforts in this area. However, there are also strong indications that the depths of most of those efforts are limited. Anecdotal and survey results indicate that the number of NGOs that are truly reporting on meaningful results (i.e. outcomes) versus outputs, is overall quite small.Maybe the reason for this is that while more and more funders are demanding outcome reporting, it is equally clear that most funders are not willing to pay the added cost associated with such management and reporting systems. Therefore, I worry that we have claims of outcome reporting covering what are no more than repackaged output reporting to satisfy funders so that the resource starved NGO can at least continue to survive. 
  • Specifically with respect to Constituent Voice, how do you see things like the emergence of the Fund for Shared Insight and Feedback Labs or the ongoing calls to improve accountability to beneficiaries in humanitarian response?  
I believe that Constituent Voice done correctly is one of the only nearly universally applicable (to all types of NGOs) tools to measure outcomes. In addition, it is probably the most affordable to small and mid-sized NGOs. One of my take-aways from 30 years of providing direct service in small and mid-sized NGOs and then spending 7 years at CN listening to thought leaders and NGO leaders, is that many of the proposed efforts to increase outcomes are not realistically available to these smaller NGOs. CV is, however, what I believe will be the key for them to get meaningful information to report on and manage to.By giving voice to those they service through CV, organizations also directly support their missions.As to Fund for Shared Insight, my reaction is “hurray for more funding for these critical tools!”As to Feedback Labs, “hurray for accessible, easy and affordable tools for NGOs to utilize!”Finally, my thoughts on improving accountability to beneficiaries in humanitarian response and everywhere else is, “hurray for those who are leading these efforts for the greater good!

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