It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The same is true for measuring impact. Proponents of smarter giving through measuring impact and outcome evaluations suggest that individual, corporate, and foundation donors who do not use such methods are likely ineffective. The discussion reminds me of the original Star Trek series. There is Captain Kirk, who is motivated by possibilities, willing to take risks, and leads with passion from the heart. By contrast, Mr. Spock, Kirk’s second in command, is ruled by logic, takes only calculated risks, and believes his heart is an impediment to good decision-making. Those advancing “smarter” giving admire the Spocks and often deride the Kirks.
In a free market economy, we celebrate the fact that anyone who secures financing can open a business. Nonprofit organizations that successfully compete in the charitable marketplace for time and money have also earned their right to exist. Certainly, no one advocates dumb giving; there is universal agreement that nonprofit organizations should obey applicable laws, have independent audits, and know how their work achieves their mission. However, beyond these minimum requirements, is there evaluative data that donors should expect and require? The dilemma is: What is high overhead to one donor is prudent investment in human resources and technology to another. What one donor sees as high costs per participant is an intensive, comprehensive program to another.
Donors support nonprofit organizations that align with their values, interests, and theory of change. Understanding this explains why the widespread lament over the existence of too many nonprofits continually falls on deaf ears and why few donors rely on charity rating services to guide their giving. We can determine a gift’s effectiveness only if we know the donor’s definition of success. There are countless hamburger restaurants—all supported by loyal customers who believe that the restaurant they go to has the best burger. However, what defines “best”—taste, quality of beef, preparation, cost—depends on who is eating the burger.
As a community foundation CEO for 20 years, I have interacted with hundreds of family and corporate donors. These experiences have taught me that donors are overwhelmingly Kirks first, then Spocks—they’re driven first by passion from the heart and later by logic. This shouldn’t be surprising. We typically become attracted by an idea—the look or the sound of something—because it speaks to our interests or experiences; only then do we seek confirmation that it is a wise choice. The need for confirmation from social networks or expert resources increases depending on the size of financial investment and reputational risk.
At Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), we help more than 1,200 donor families determine areas of interest, preference for supporting direct services or public policy, and what results constitute success. Husbands, wives, and their children differ on these questions, and all of their viewpoints are valid. We manage the fourth largest donor advised fund program after Fidelity, Charles Schwab, and Vanguard Charitable Gift Funds. We also advise more than 100 corporations on philanthropy through diverse employee giving committees, which are sometimes comprised of members based in different parts of the world. Through SVCF’s processes, families and giving committees recognize that depending on the topic, the gift’s size, project time horizon, and a nonprofit organization’s capacity, the need for and the type of evaluation will be different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to evaluation—an insight that SVCF encourages.
SVCF donors interested in evaluation are encouraged to consider how they will use the results before making a gift. Too often, regardless of programmatic success or failure, results are the same for a nonprofit organization. If a program proves successful, the donor cuts funding, believing that others will support the project. If the project fails, the donor, disappointed, cuts funding. Evaluation should not be a game of bait and switch for nonprofit organizations.
Video: Emmett Carson on why we have to see evaluation as a partnership.
Effective giving comes from the heart and is confirmed by the head. It’s why donors need Captain Kirk’s passion to seek new worlds, tempered by Mr. Spock’s pragmatism—because a Captain Spock is unlikely to boldly go where no one has gone before even with a Mr. Kirk at his side.