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This is a guest post from Jeff Raderstrong, who blogs at Change Charity. Jeff’s views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Philanthropy Action. Actually, we do in fact disagree with Jeff’s view, but we’re happy to have the debate.—eds.

Maybe it’s my homegrown American sense of individualism, or maybe it’s those NBC public service announcements, but for some reason, I’ve always thought that with the right information, people could accomplish anything. I’ve applied this logic to philanthropic reform: If people just had access to information about their favorite charity’s impact, or just simply requested that information, non-profits would succumb to the wishes of their funders and start evaluating and revising based on the effectiveness of their programs.

Philanthropy Action and other  blogs also operate—to varying degrees—under that assumption. But as Tim and Laura have written here recently, good evidence does not always get people to change their behavior. Examples of readily accessible information being ignored in favor of the status quo are too numerous: Climate change, fair trade, etc., etc.

The good information directed at donors about effective philanthropy may also be falling on deaf ears. Charity Navigator, one of the biggest charity evaluators out there, recently announced a complete overhaul to its evaluation system to one based on impact and effectiveness, which has the potential to offer good charity evaluation information to more people than at any other point in history. However, based on my rough and generous calculations, Charity Navigator has a market penetration of about 2% of all US donors. I worry that most of its new information will not be accessed, or that if it is, it will be ignored.

So focusing on giving information to donors—especially casual donors—might not create the industry-wide reform needed. Instead, if we want non-profits to think about effectiveness and work off of accountability, information should be directed at the non-profit organizations themselves. Many organizations, like the Independent Sector, the Social Impact Exchange and the Acumen Fund are showing non-profits that operating under effectiveness-based measurements is better for them and how it will ultimately better serve their clients.

Ultimately, pressure from both sides is needed. But since most donations come from individuals and not a small group of major donors, expecting the masses of donors to pressure non-profits to change might not be feasible. Instead, reform could come sooner if non-profits begin to realize that measures of accountability will create better programs and increased capacity to leverage donations. If more outreach and information about reform is directed towards those working in non-profits, organizations might change before all their funders know why it’s necessary.

Comments

Jeff,
I read your Change Charity blog and found my way over here.  You’ve got an interesting idea, but I don’t think we should give up on donors quite yet (although I think promoting accountability from inside nonprofits is a very good thing to do!).

What if these organizations that rate nonprofits did a better job of branding their ratings and getting highly rated organizations to promote their good scores?

It at least appears that car companies compete to win JD Power & Associates awards, and movies lust over an award from Sundance, so why not work to increase the visibility of these organizations to the point that their ratings become a source of prestige?

I guess I just don’t want to give up on donors quite yet!

January 21, 2010

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