Writing as a guest on the Tactical Philanthropy blog this week, Michael Soper, formerly SVP of Development at PBS and WETA, has written the article I've just never gotten around to writing.

The title tells it all: Strong Marketing of a Weak Success Measure: Charity Navigator Vital Mission Hides Flawed Rankings.

Soper describes well how the grossly simplistic array of ratios used by Charity Navigator can be injurious at worst (harming the reputations of nonprofits wrongly “ranked”), and woefully incomplete at best.

As he puts it: “Charity Navigator, its ratings, and its top ten lists are nothing more than great merchandising of a weak underlying product.” He characterizes the lists as “the 'National Enquirer' approach to a topic that demands more substantive evaluation of nonprofits' effectiveness and efficiency.”

Amen!

Soper believes there's no real substitute for donors really getting engaged and taking the trouble to dig in and learn about the various organizations purporting to work in the donor's area of interest.

Amen again.

To the nonprofits who want to be evaluated on some basis other than simplistic fundraising ratios, I would offer these rules:

  1. Bend over backwards to be transparent and plain-speaking on all financial matters.
  2. Commit to serious, sustained efforts to measure the outcomes of your endeavors (and I mean outcomes, not “process” measures).
  3. Don't BS your prospects and stakeholders about your progress (donors, like all modern consumers, have evolved highly sensitive BS radars … and they now have the online tools to easily broadcast their negative readings far and wide).

Finally, if you're a really serious donor, you might check out the painstaking investigative and evaluative processes employed by the folks at the GiveWell Blog. Sometimes their empiricism is a little forced for my taste, but they certainly show us what it means to keep a strong focus on results when evaluating nonprofits.

Thanks for getting your misgivings on paper, Michael Soper … you deserve a raise.

Tom

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