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Nonprofits Need Unbiased Assessment

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We recently came across a blog that discusses the importance of charities being evaluated by an independent source rather than conducting self-evaluations. Communities In Schools is proud to be an organization that regularly undergoes outside evaluation. Our data is verified every school year by third parties, including the official records of each school and the Texas Education Agency. We rely on this data validation to confirm that our programs are effective, and that we are having a positive impact on students.

We have included the Stanford Social Innovation Review article “Most Charities Shouldn’t Evaluate Their Work: Part Two” below. To access the full article, click the link at the bottom of this blog post.

Most Charities Shouldn’t Evaluate Their Work: Part Two

 So what should happen if no one has properly evaluated an idea yet? If it’s important, an independent and suitably skilled researcher should evaluate it in enough detail and in enough contexts for other charities and donors to rely on the findings. The leading medical journal The Lancet cites a tenet of good clinical research: “Ask an important question, and answer it reliably.

A countercultural implication follows from this. It’s often said that the evaluation of a grant should be proportionate to the size of the grant. It’s also often said that evaluations should be proportionate to the size of the charities. We can see now that both views are wrong. The aim of an evaluation is to provide a reliable answer to an important question. From there, the amount worth spending on an evaluation is proportionate to the size of the knowledge gap and the scale of the programs that might use the answer.

To illustrate, suppose a small company has developed a new drug for breast cancer. The “first-in-(wo)man studies,” as they’re called, involve only a few people, for obvious safety reasons. Relative to the cost of dispensing the drug to those few women, how much should the company spend on evaluating the effect on them? The answer is “a lot,” because the answer is important for many people. So the cost of the “pilot” is irrelevant. So too is the size of the company running the “pilot.” Often, the cost of robustly evaluating a program will exceed the cost of delivering that program—which is fine, if the results are useful to a wide audience.

Conflicted out

So not only are most charities unskilled at evaluations—and we wouldn’t want them to be—but also we wouldn’t want most charities to evaluate their own work even if they could. Despite their deep understanding of their work, charities are the worst people imaginable to evaluate it because they’re the protagonists. They’re selling. They’re conflicted. Hence, it’s hardly surprising that the Paul Hamlyn Foundation study found “some, though relatively few, instances of outcomes being reported with little or no evidence to back this up.”

I’m not saying that charities are corrupt or evil. It’s just unreasonable—possibly foolish—to expect that people can be impartial about their own work, salaries, or reputations. As a charity CEO, I’ve seen how “impact assessment” and fundraising are co-mingled: Charities are encouraged to parade their self-generated impact data in fundraising applications. No prizes for guessing what happens to self-generated impact data that isn’t flattering.

To my knowledge, nobody’s ever examined the effect of this self-reporting among charities. But they have in medicine, where independent studies produce strikingly different results to those produced by the protagonists. Published studies funded by pharmaceutical companies are four times more likely to give results favorable to the company than are independent studies. It’s thought that around half of all clinical trial results are unpublished, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which half that might be.

Who should do evaluations?

Skilled and independent researchers, such as academics, should normally take on evaluation of ideas. They should be funded independently and as a public good, such that charities, donors, and others can access them to decide which ideas to use.

For the full blog visit http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/most_charities_shouldnt_evaluate_their_work1  

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