Individual donors and small family foundations are a generous lot, contributing the lion’s share of charitable gifts in the United States. Donors naturally want their money to be spent wisely, but information about the effectiveness of organizations can be hard to find. Deciding where to give “often comes down to a preference game,” says Alex Rossides, president of the Social Impact Exchange, “without any assurance that contributions will have real impact.”
To change this scenario, Social Impact Exchange has launched the Social Impact 100. The S&I 100 is an index of 100 top-performing, US-based nonprofits that are poised for growth. “We want to make it easy for funders to connect to these top-flight nonprofits,” Rossides says, so that proven solutions can scale up. Launched by the Growth Philanthropy Network, in partnership with two centers at Duke University, the index is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett, Robert Wood Johnson, and Rockefeller Foundations. It is being offered to the philanthropic clients of donor-advised funds like Schwab Charitable.
The nonprofit index is modeled loosely on the S&P 500. It lists mature organizations delivering direct services in four critical areas: education, poverty, youth, and health. “We want to help solve the most difficult, intractable problems facing the country, and especially those affecting vulnerable individuals,” Rossides explains. “We know that these issues are of great interest to donors. Many people’s gifts are based on their passions and interests.”
True to its name, the S&I 100 lists only a hundred nonprofits. Many of these organizations, however, have local or regional affiliates. Nurse-Family Partnership, for instance, delivers health services in 221 locations, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America serves youth in more than 300 communities. Donors can support organizations at the national level or through 16,000 listed affiliates.
The index has carefully screened nonprofits “to make sure the ones we include are really making a difference in people’s lives,” Rossides says. For starters, organizations can’t self-nominate. They have to be recommended by an outside source familiar with their work. Next comes the proof-of-concept test. Qualifying nonprofits must submit a quantitative outcome study conducted by a third party that shows the organization’s positive impact. Then they have to be ready to grow. That means having a plan in place to scale up their efforts and an annual budget of at least $1 million. The evaluation framework was developed by a working group from Social Impact Exchange and involved experts from across the social sector.
For the philanthropic community, the S&I 100 offers “a giant step forward for the field,” says Page Snow, chief philanthropic director of Foundation Source, which represents more than 1,000 private foundations. “There’s not a better resource out there,” she says, for donors who are looking for information about organizations that have demonstrated results.
The design of the online index allows donors to skim the surface to find what they’re looking for, or to dig deeper for detailed reports. Then it takes just one click to get to any organization’s donation page. The S&I 100 takes no share of donations. “It’s very unusual to find all this information in one place,” adds Snow.
For nonprofits being considered for the index, the vetting “is indeed a rigorous process,” acknowledges Sharon Washington, executive director of the National Writing Project (NWP). Getting selected for the S&I 100 “puts you in a fantastic peer group of organizations that are making a difference. It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” she says. NWP has a solid track record of improving the teaching of writing through teacher professional development, but it has seen federal support dwindle. To bring its proven program to more teachers, NWP needs to grow its support from the philanthropic community. “We’re hopeful,” Washington says, that the S&I 100 will help accomplish that goal.
The first-of-its-kind index is likely to expand in the coming year with the addition of nonprofits working on environmental issues. Rossides is quick to acknowledge that “there are lots of worthy organizations,” including religious institutions and alma maters, that aren’t included in the S&I 100. “We would never suggest that donors should limit their contributions to this list.”
“Those four areas [of the index] don’t cover all the interests of donors,” adds Snow, noting that family foundations base their giving decisions on a wide range of factors. Some prefer to fund smaller, community-based organizations that don’t meet the requirements of the S&I 100, and Snow doesn’t expect them to jettison their giving traditions “for a list.”
But if donors would devote just a portion of their regular giving to high-impact nonprofits, Rossides adds, “that could be transformative in getting the social sector to apply its top interventions to help millions.”