August 15, 2011

Live from InterAction Forum: Trends to Watch in NGO Measurement

From the 2011 InterAction Forum, three exciting trends in measurement and accountability for NGOs.

By: Matthew Forti


Last week I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the 2011 InterAction Forum, which brings together the world’s leading international NGOs working in the areas of development and humanitarian assistance.

Nearly a dozen workshops over three days focused exclusively on measurement and accountability. Here are three exciting trends:

Incorporating results in NGO ratings systems: NGOs have groaned for years about funders’ focus on keeping overhead to a minimum as the yardstick of success and the role charity rating systems have played in perpetuating this attitude. Ken Berger of Charity Navigator spoke about his organization's shift to include accountability and transparency (e.g., conflict of interest policy in place, audited financials posted on the website) and eventually results reporting (e.g., having a logic model and measures, reporting on progress) in Charity Navigator’s star ratings. The Charting Impact initiative will similarly allow NGOs to articulate their intended impact, theory of change, organizational capabilities, performance measurement strategy, and progress in a concise report to be posted on sites such as Guidestar and the Better Business Bureau. We can hope that this kind of disclosure will promote healthy back and forth—all in the public view— around the magnitude of and methods behind an NGO’s reported outcomes and impacts. Donors have a right to request this data, intermediaries have a right to analyze it, but surely NGOs also have the right to respond to critiques they receive (given complexities and nuances that intermediaries may not appreciate). We can also hope this trend begins to relegate input indicators (e.g., overhead ratios) and output indicators (e.g., number of trainings conducted) to their appropriate position as relevant but of secondary consideration to the outcomes NGOs achieve.

Constituent feedback/shared learning: According to Center for Effective Philanthropy, less than one-fifth of funders formally gather feedback from their grantees—troubling to say the least! David Bonbright from Keystone Accountability shared his compelling work built around polling constituents to reveal the strength of an organization’s relationships with its grantees, partners, end beneficiaries, etc. Positive constituent feedback as a good predictor of, and supplement to, measuring longer-term outcomes is supported by Bain & Company’s research showing customer loyalty as the best predictor of a company’s long-term growth and profitability. Two of 25 international NGOs who participated in a joint constituent feedback exercise spoke alongside David to describe how learning the perceptions of their developing country NGO partners, and wrestling with the data alongside their peers, transformed the way they went about their work.

Measure for yourself: According to nonprofit evaluation, research, and consulting firm Innovation Network, less than one-third of NGOs name their own staff and beneficiaries as the primary audience for measurement. (The rest measure for funders, boards, or other audiences). Kate Robinson screened the documentary “Saving Philanthropy”, chronicling how NGOs such as Latin American Youth Center, Nurse-Family Partnership, and Roca use measurement to improve the outcomes they achieve for their beneficiaries. The title is an interesting choice, as the film seems squarely aimed at encouraging and advising NGOs to create logic models, build data systems, and use data to course correct. That said, a clear undertone of the film is the need for philanthropists to support NGOs in their efforts to measure for improvement. Judging by the response to the film, the support InterAction member NGOs most need from funders are collaborations that reduce the demand for multiple grantee reports and forms of funding that address internal needs to build the capacity to measure. Let’s hope the video format—showing leaders, staff, and beneficiaries working side-by-side to measure—is a powerful medium for NGOs and funders alike.

Which of these three trends are you observing in measurement? Ten years from now, will we still be talking about the same set of problems or will we have seen any meaningful change? I’m eager to hear your thoughts!

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