How to Research a Nonprofit’s Strategy and Results—Moderate Approach

4.5 mins |

Do you and your potential grantee share the same goals? It’s important to find out, because no matter how strong an organization is, if there is a mismatch between your goals and what that nonprofit is aiming to do, the partnership isn’t likely to achieve the results you desire.

Visit our Nonprofit Due Diligence Donor Decision Tool for more step-by-step guides on researching nonprofits. You can also find more advice about philanthropy in our Getting Started Resource Library.

While the research needed to reach clarity will vary in each case, what’s constant is the importance—and power—of shared goals. To paraphrase Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s famous quotation about love: “Results do not consist in donor and grantee gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction.”

To assess whether you are “looking in the same direction”:

  • Learn about the programs the organization runs: How do they work? What makes them different from other approaches?
  • Ask what assumptions underlie the organization’s programs (for example, that extending the school day will lead to better academic achievement).
  • Determine if you believe in the connection between the organization’s programs and the results it seeks. This is sometimes called a “theory of change.”

You’ll also benefit from learning about where this organization fits in the broader field. Just as donors can’t go it alone, nonprofits often rely on one another to meet their goals. For example, a charter school might recruit its teachers from a local teacher training program, or send its graduating eighth graders to a magnet high school. Ask the organization’s leaders where other organizations step in to help create the outcomes it seeks.

Finally, you will want to gather external perspectives on the organization’s work. Scanning secondary literature for articles written about the organization and speaking with external experts will help you determine the nonprofit’s reputation in the field.

Your research into a nonprofit’s strategy should consider the mission and goals of the organization and the activities it engages in to reach these objectives—its program design. The natural question to ask once you understand an organization’s strategy is: does this actually work? In addition, you’ll want to understand whether the organization is refining its model with a focus on improving results. Continue your investigation by seeking to understand the organization’s program effectiveness.

Program design

How does an organization turn its strategy into action? Among other possibilities, a nonprofit’s work might consist of offering a direct service, such as afterschool tutoring or job training, developing an advocacy campaign, or conducting research. For simplicity, we will refer to the work an organization does to get results as its “program(s).” The ability to get results is deeply tied to how an organization designs and delivers its programs.

An organization’s ability to get results also rests on its unique qualities. What specific elements differentiate this organization?

After doing some research, asking yourself some of these questions may help you summarize your sense of the organization’s program design and what it aims to deliver:

  • How has the organization defined the problem it is trying to solve?
  • Has the organization defined its goals and approach to achieving them?
  • If the programs don’t directly forward the organization’s core mission (for example, sometimes organizations have “legacy” programs that don’t seem aligned with the main focus), why is that the case? What is the rationale for these programs?
  • Can the leaders make the tough decisions necessary for maintaining the organization’s focus? What is an example of a tough decision the leader has made, and how did he or she make this decision?

Nonprofit program effectiveness

Is the nonprofit you are thinking of funding getting results? Finding out means taking on the difficult task of attempting to assign credit to the organization for creating outcomes that otherwise would not have occurred. This can be challenging in the absence of a rigorous, formal evaluation, which very few nonprofits have undertaken.

Your best course of action is to take advantage of existing data and knowledge about the field, starting with a survey of secondary literature and also reviewing any research the nonprofit organization has on hand. Consulting with an expert or two in the field is another way to learn more about how effective the organization’s methods may be.

The following questions can serve as a litmus test to gauge the extent to which the organization is focused on learning and improving:

Selected Sources

  • Bridgespan, 2011
  • Jeri Eckhart-Queenan and Matt Forti, “Measurement as Learning: What Nonprofit CEOs, Board Members, and Philanthropists Need to Know to Keep Improving,” The Bridgespan Group, 2011
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