A Crucial Missing Link: Where’s the Foundation Support for Nonprofit Assessment Efforts?

Earlier in my career, I consulted for a number of nonprofit organizations, helping them think about how they could collect, analyze, and interpret data. What struck me at almost every one of these nonprofits was the lack of resources and knowledge they had to work with data. Perhaps because of this, a major frustration I experienced was that organizations often called me in too late in the process. They had already collected the data they wanted me to analyze in order to answer key questions about their work or programs. Unfortunately, I often had to deliver the unsettling news that I could not answer the questions they wanted me to answer with the data they had collected. In those days, I was repeatedly reminded of a quote from a research design textbook written by Harvard professors Light, Singer, and Willett: “You can’t fix by analysis what you bungled by design.”

Years later, at CEP, my colleagues and I have collected data from foundation leaders across the country about their struggles, their goals, and their attempts to understand the difference they are making in society. We’ve learned that one of the more common challenges foundation program officers face when trying to assess the progress their foundations are making is that nonprofits don’t have the capacity or the skills to be able to assess their own progress on the grants they receive. We’ve also learned that although foundation CEOs rely on the data they collect from their grantees in order to understand their own foundation’s impact, they believe that nonprofits need to be held to higher standards to demonstrate their effectiveness.

The nonprofit perspective is too often missing in conversations about nonprofits, though. So, in April of this year, we administered a survey about nonprofit performance measurement and management to the 300 nonprofit leaders who agreed to be a part of CEP’s The Grantee Voice: Feedback for Foundations panel.

In a study we are releasing today, titled Room for Improvement: Foundations’ Support of Nonprofit Performance Assessment, my colleagues Andrea Brock, An-Li Herring, and I share what we heard loud and clear from the 177 nonprofit leaders who responded to our survey: They do care about understanding the progress their organizations are making, and they are trying to collect data to help them understand it. What they don’t have is help from foundations: Most nonprofit leaders told us that they receive no help—no monetary and no non-monetary help—from foundation funders to do this work, but they want help. They want funding to help them assess their performance, and they want to be discussing with their funders how to do this work and what they are learning from it.

Across the data we have collected from foundations and nonprofits, we see that both sides of the funding equation are experiencing frustration. Foundations have some frustration with what they perceive nonprofits not to be doing to assess their work, and nonprofits are not getting the help they want or need from foundations to do this work well. It seems that foundations and nonprofits have a crucial shared goal, but there is much room for improvement in how they work together to achieve it.


Ellie Buteau is Vice President – Research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can find her on Twitter @EButeau_CEP and join the conversation about this report at hashtag #granteevoice.

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