Nonprofits learn how to gauge if efforts are paying off

by Susan Essoyan
This article appeared in the 10/2/2016 Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Nonprofit leaders are drawn to their jobs by a sense of mission, propelled by their concern for people or the planet.

Crunching numbers may not be their first love. But donors these days want to know whether their dollars are making a difference. A new initiative launched last week aims to help local nonprofits focus on that question: What results are they actually achieving?

“We know we have success stories, and they are really important to tell,” said Howard Garval, president and CEO of Child & Family Service. “There are incredible examples of people who have been as low as you can possibly go and have succeeded and come back, changed their lives for the better.”
But heartwarming stories are not enough, he said. “We also need to be able to back it up with hard data.”

Four years ago, Child & Family Service adopted a nationally recognized tool to help nonprofits measure the impact of its many programs, known as Results-Based Accountability™.

Now, with sponsorship from Aloha United Way, the agency is training staff from 16 other nonprofits to use the approach, which was developed by Mark Friedman, founder of the Fiscal Policy Studies Institute in Santa Fe, N.M.

AUW invited all of its 200 partner agencies to apply, and selected 16 for the program, ranging from Hale Kipa to Hawaii Literacy, and Lanakila Pacific to Waikiki Health.

“It’s not good enough anymore to count the number of meals served or the number of group sessions held,” said Marc Gannon, vice president of community impact at Aloha United Way. “We have to know what the result of that is. Generally health and human services as an industry is far behind our ability to measure our impact than in other industries.”

Simple system

The beauty of Results-Based Accountability™ is its simplicity, said Garval, who first used the system at a nonprofit in Connecticut a dozen years ago.
The approach focuses on three questions: “How much did you do?” “How well did you do it?” and “Is anyone better off?”

Garval has added a fourth question: “How can we use the data to get better?”

Nonprofit staff come up with two or three “headline outcome measures” to gauge their effectiveness. For example, in a domestic abuse shelter, the target could be a percentage of women who develop a safety plan before leaving the shelter. In a home visiting program, meanwhile, the target could be reducing reports of child abuse or neglect by a certain percentage.

The goals must be measurable, and they can be adjusted to ensure the agency continues to improve.

Aloha United Way expects a big bang for its buck with the project, which is costing about $5,500.

“It is a tremendous value,” Gannon said. “For Aloha United Way, it’s a small dollar amount with a massive potential return.

“We are the steward of our community’s resources,” he said.

“I take very seriously my role in making the determination on how we utilize those resources. Sometimes it goes to case management and sometimes it goes to emergency food, but sometimes it needs to go to the capacity of our nonprofit sector.”

Levels of training

The training kicked off on Tuesday and runs in four half-day sessions over the next few months, at either a basic or an advanced level, depending on the need of the nonprofit. It is being offered through the Institute of Training and Evaluation, a division of Child & Family Service.

“Child & Family Service is the only licensed RBA™ trainer in Hawaii,” Gannon said. “They’ve spread it throughout their agency and now with our support they are spreading it throughout the community. Talk about leveraging impact.”

He said he has seen a shift in the expectations of donors. Rather than giving just because “it’s the right thing to do,” more of them want to know the impact of their $100 gift or $10,000 gift.

“They want to know that their contribution was allocated in or used in a way that is making change,” he said.

“Measurement and evaluation are, many would say, not really fun,” Gannon said. “It’s hard to find passionate people that really are driven by a mission who also want to measure their impact.”

But knowing which services result in the greatest impact helps in determining where to funnel resources, he said, and ultimately it strengthens programs.

Staff members from the 16 nonprofits below are learning Results-Based Accountability to help them assess their impact in the community:
Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii
Hale Kipa
Parents and Children Together
YMCA of Honolulu
Palama Settlement
Hawaii Children’s Action Network
‘Olelo Community Media
Family Promise of Hawai’i
Hawaii Literacy
Lanakila Pacific
Hawaii Foodbank
Waikiki Health

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