November 18, 2017
 
Judging Your Impact: Has Your Board Taken a Hard Look?

By Gayle Gifford

How will our community be better because of what we do? That doesn’t sound like such a tough question, but for many boards it’s the hardest one to answer. And the most important.

Many boards hedge when asked to set goals describing how their community will be better off. It’s tempting to think about your organization only in terms of what you are – a community center or a school, for example. And then to judge your effectiveness on that basis – did we put on lots of interesting programs? Is our building clean?

But the impact of that community center is much greater than buildings and activities. It brings the generations together. It’s a safe space where children and the elderly can thrive. It rekindles community spirit, the arts, culture, and recreation.

These are the results that matter, the ways in which our lives are enriched. What is it that you want to achieve for your community? Until you know, you won’t be able to design the best programs to get you there.

Here’s an example. The board of a small community land trust saw its primary purpose as building public support for land conservation. While it had acquired 400 acres of protected lands in its first 10 years, its goals were largely to expand membership and run education programs.

But with the prodding of a few major supporters, the board decided to undertake a rigorous self-examination. What difference are we making? they asked. Are we doing enough?

The answer to that question was – we can do more. So the board set a bold new goal – to permanently protect 2000 acres of land. This new focus led to a restructuring that produced astounding results. In the next four years it more than doubled its protected holdings.

Often boards are reluctant to quantify the community impact they desire because they’re afraid of falling short of the goal.

But if your vision isn’t bold enough to matter, it probably won’t inspire others to action. And while it may be a cliché, it’s nevertheless true that you won’t get to your destination if you don’t know where you are going.

How well do we know our community’s needs?

In business, you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone to invest money in your company if you couldn’t describe the size, characteristics and needs of your market.

Business investors need confidence that company managers know what they’re doing. They want to know their investment will result in some significant returns for the money they put in.

Your community investors expect the same of your organization. There is no excuse for a board not knowing the basics of its core business.

Imagine you were starting an organization to help a recent wave of refugees coming to town. What would you want to know?

You’d talk to immigration officials to find out who was coming, how many, how old, how needy. You’d talk to realtors to learn about housing. You’d visit business leaders to learn about jobs. You’d talk to school officials about enrollment and special services.

And, then, if you were really thorough, you’d take it a step further. You’d learn about the culture, traditions and values of the refugees. You’d contact other agencies to find out what services they could provide. You’d visit potential donors to assess the likelihood of financial support. You’d meet with government and elected officials.

Understanding the scope of community need is an essential part of every board’s work, whether you’re the board of a start-up organization or an established one.

Responsible boards yearn for information that will allow them to focus on the most pressing needs of their constituents. Without it, it’s difficult to direct resources to where they can make the greatest difference.

Not that keeping up with community change is easy. It means talking with service providers, seeking advice from community leaders, meeting with government officials, even reading data and conducting surveys.

“Fine, we’ll put the staff right on it,” I hear you say. That’s tempting, I admit. But your constituents want to see and talk to you, the people in charge.

And besides, there are genuine benefits to doing the work yourself. Not only will you gain insights into your community, you’ll experience firsthand how your organization is perceived, and maybe even identify a promising candidate for the board.

Do we know if our programs are having an impact?

With billions of dollars contributed to nonprofit organizations each year, more donors are questioning how much return they’re getting on that investment.

Government, private funders, and the public want to see results. This push for accountability is good for our organizations. But being accountable for results isn’t a simple undertaking for most organizations.

Consider the firestorm around educational testing in public schools. Whatever you believe about its merits, there are important and fundamental questions at its center:

What do we want our kids to know and be able to do? How do we know they are learning? Who are we failing and why? What are we getting for our investment?

Yes, evaluation is tough. Yes, progress is hard to measure. Yes, some funders set unrealistic timelines to deliver results.

But no matter how hard, if your board isn’t trying to measure results, then you can’t be confident the money you spend is having any impact at all.

For three decades, Save The Bay has been the public champion of a clean and healthy Narragansett Bay.

Sewage and toxic pollution have fallen significantly. But pollution levels, directors knew, aren’t a complete measure of the Bay’s ecological health.

After considerable deliberation, the organization developed a “State of the Bay” report that, over time, monitors changes in ten categories, ranging from eelgrass to fisheries. Now, the board can focus on the systems most in need of repair and spot new problems as they emerge.

If your board hasn’t seriously examined your organization’s impact, try stimulating interest by asking the questions that lie at the heart of any evaluation:

  • What’s working? – So you can keep doing the things that produce results.
  • How do we know? – Because your evaluation should be based on evidence, not just a few nice stories.
  • What isn’t working? – So you can stop doing it.
  • Why is it or isn’t it working? – So you can learn how to do better.
It’s tempting to keep doing what you’ve always done. But people’s lives and your donor’s contributions are at stake. It’s negligent to keep investing money in programs without proof they make a difference.

This article is excerpted from Gayle Gifford’s book, How Are We Doing? A 1-Hour Guide to Evaluating Your Performance as a Nonprofit Board, published by Emerson & Church. For more information, visit www.emersonandchurch.com or call 508-359-0019.

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