Giving Accountability
June 16, 2015

Today, The Wall Street Journal reported that charitable giving in the U.S. last year hit a record $358.4B. It is certainly great news that Americans continue to be among the most generous philanthropists in the world and that our rate of giving, post Great Recession, continues to grow. But, even as we spend more, important questions remain — What do we really know about the impact of our contributions? And to what expectations should we hold our charities? As funders, we must demand better answers about the impact our contributions generate which, in turn, will help to set higher expectations for the sector.

Measuring impact is one of the greatest challenges facing the social sector, and we need to be thoughtful about how we define success. Is it enough to know that an organization helped 450 homeless veterans in a given community to have a place to live? Without further information, this metric provides little insight. To really gauge the impact, it helps to understand what percent of those veterans are still homeless. Furthermore, we should assess how that rate compares to total community homelessness.

Moreover, we should understand how one organization’s success compares to the effectiveness and efficiency of other organizations. The bottom line in deciding which charity to support, requires that we must do more than assess a range of statistics, and instead determine exactly which outcomes we need to achieve. Recipients of your charitable giving should go beyond reporting how many individuals they’ve reached and clearly articulate the change in status, condition or behavior they are aiming to produce. Then they can regularly track their progress toward achieving those changes.

The reality is not every organization is reporting meaningful outcomes data yet. So here’s what I recommend you do before donating. Understand exactly what changes the prospect organization is seeking to create, and review the evidence they’ve provided. Ask questions. Are these goals realistic? How do they compare to similar programs in other communities?

For instance, imagine a literacy program in a distressed neighborhood that provides one-on-one sessions one afternoon a week during the school year. Is it realistic to expect participation in this program to result in 90% of participants reading on grade level by the end of the school year? What, if anything, about this program makes you believe it can achieve significantly greater impact than other literacy programs? Does the program’s intervention have a greater frequency or duration than average? Is the quality of the tutors that much better? Is there a proven, evidence-based model it is following?

There is so much need in the world, and so many nonprofits vying for your dollars. Yet, as we seek ways to invest in social change, we frequently are only provided with accountability metrics such as administrative costs or percentages. Next year, rather than tracking charitable spending increases, wouldn’t it be great to quantify the return on the billions of dollars we invest in social change?