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What donors want – the heart and mind in giving

March 2, 2011

Measurement and impact evaluation continues to be, or is again depending on how you look at it, a hot topic in philanthropy.  Its popularity seems to ebb and flow, with research studies and data, emerging ideas and conversations, especially in our new reality of limited resources, fewer dollars, more demand and greater need.  What we hear: Donors are looking for more… more information, more data, more resources to make their decisions.  This leaves nonprofits changing course in some cases, struggling to focus on evaluation, and implement new programs (often without resources – money, staff – to do it).  Not a healthy trend.

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a teleconference:  “Balancing Data and Desire: The Science and Art of Family Giving.” Hosted by the National Center for Family Philanthropy, the discussion featured Cynthia Gibson, Senior Vice President of The Philanthropic Initiative and William M. Dietel, Senior Partner at Dietel Partners, co-authors of the article “What Do Donors Want?” published in the fall edition of Nonprofit Quarterly. Better, or sometimes just the mere existence of, data and metrics is seen as a must for philanthropists who want to maximize the effectiveness of their giving.

But, what do we do with all that information?  In his article “Measurement is Futile,” Bill Schambra from the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute writes:

The great variety and transience of measurement protocols of course becomes a severe drag on a group’s work. More and more staff time must be deployed simply to master and fill out the various reporting forms. As a result, small, grass-roots nonprofits—which are so often a key source of innovation—are automatically frozen out of money by the burden of measurement. Ironically, the same economic hardships that feed the demands for greater measurable efficiency also reduce the money available for this increased managerial burden.

Now, the burden of measurement might be endurable were we confident that all those numbers we were collecting were somehow adding up to a coherent science of grant making. But … We are not able to aggregate reported results across large numbers of similar projects. … That is, they aren’t collected in such a way that they add up to a useable body of knowledge.

That’s not to say asking for information on how money is being used and what it is accomplishing is detrimental, it can be useful to different donors in different ways.    It’s just not always about tracking the outcomes that affect when and how to give.  Let’s also consider the values and personal beliefs of families and donors, how existing relationships, expectations, commitments to specific issues play a role in giving. Often, it’s just a gut feeling, we are driven by emotions and a passion for an issue or topic – perhaps from personal experience.  We want to help.

On the call, we talked about ways to balance the science and art of family philanthropy, how to make good decisions when data doesn’t necessarily measure a cause or an issue, or where change transpires over a long time, and what we can do to feel confident about our decisions.  One of the things that came up – so many of us have our own guides that inform our grant decisions, a checklist sometimes written, that helps us analyze a first gift as well as recurring, continual support.  Things such as past successes, a creative approach or a  positive public reputation.

Do you have such a process or assessment?  How do you “measure” the more abstract or subjective qualities of potential nonprofits to support?  What do you need or look for as a donor?

As Gibson and Dietel conclude their piece:

…Perhaps our greatest challenge  is less about finding ways to measure and codify philanthropy and more about determining where that practice fits within the larger goal of encouraging more philanthropy among a more diverse group of donors.

It leaves me thinking of the well known directive  “Just Do It” … or as a colleague recently asked, “Why can’t we – Just Give?”

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