A strategic plan to measure impact

When I was a child, I constantly played with my toy army set. I would move the pieces around in various formations, marshalling a contingent of infantry, artillery, and tanks to take some highly strategic object. Like the coffee table or the lamp stand.
I’m reviving my childhood fantasy with a periodic feature on this blog called, “Benevolent Dictator.” In this game, I get to command the social sector for the good of the average executive director. The rules of this game are the same as they were in my childhood:
  1. There has to be a strategic objective.
  2. I can move around pieces as I will.
  3. The pieces have to be actual entities
  4. The actions have to be plausible (i.e. this is not “Benevolent Deity” where I can just snap my finger and command that all nonprofits get fully funded)
The impetus for reviving this game came when I attended CompassPoint’s Nonprofit Forum in Silicon Valley.  CompassPoint is a leader in nonprofit services in the region, specializing in training, executive transitions, and research.
The conference smartly chose to begin with what I think is a critical subject in the field: impact measurement and evaluation. CompassPoint should be applauded for recognizing that the field has to advance on this front, both for the purposes of internal planning and external fund raising. 
The opening talk was a fine overview of the subject matter, with the expert explaining logic models, planning cycles, data collection, and other aspects of the subject.
People listened attentively, took copious notes, asked good questions. The material will, I suspect, make a fine reference folder in many of the attendees’ files.
But I doubt it will make much practical difference because most of those in the room were leaders or staff in fairly small organizations, generally under $1M. I knew many of them individually or was familiar with their organizations. And the reality is that they simply do not have the organizational resources or time to execute what the expert was outlining, at least in the area of impact measurement. 
Maybe the speaker, a consultant in the field, didn’t have enough time (although she was allotted over an hour), but the talk failed to translate her material into the practicalities of an executive director with maybe four staff under her and barely making budget this year.  I would estimate at least 9 out of 10 could not afford to hire the speaker or any other expert. And funding for measurement is thin for organizations at this small level.
So how are small nonprofits supposed to take this hill? Well, it’s time to don my Benevolent Dictator outfit.
The Strategy
It is already outlined here in a previous blog of mine.

Basically, I believe the social sector needs to leverage the resources of the academic world to serve small NPOs with limited resources. How do we get there? Here’s how I would move the pieces in my home turf, the Bay Area.
The Pieces
1. Key Funders. We do need them to create some center of gravity and initial funding. I’m rolling out the heavy artillery for this: Hewlett, Irvine, and Packard foundations. They’ve already cooperated together on other regional initiatives, their leadership grasps the significance of this issue (for instance, Hewlett has funded this creative approach to selection of top performing NPOs).

2. Service Learning Expertise. The crux of the strategy is to develop courses that get students (preferably graduate students, but undergraduates also) to execute impact measurement projects as part of their coursework. This is called “service-learning” and for expertise on this subject, I’m going to call on California Campus Compact (full disclosure: Campus Compact is a client of my firm).
The nice thing about this strategy is that it draws on a wider funding pool for this project and the cause of impact measurement as a whole. Campus Compact gets most of its funding from federal sources aimed at education which is distinct from the world of most nonprofits.
3. Universities. We want schools that already have the infrastructure in place: departments, courses, professors who are attuned to the social sector. Our offensive campaign is well stocked with Berkeley, Stanford, and Santa Clara lined up from San Francisco to San Jose. All three have graduate departments that are national leaders in producing social sector leadership.
4. Impact measurement expertise. I’ll go with two experts that I know and like: Social Edge’s own Sara Olsen and SeeChange’s Melanie Moore Kubo. What I like about both of them is that they are not purists. They recognize that their field will advance only to the extent that it becomes more accessible to the rank and file, even if it means developing more quick and dirty approaches.
The Tactical Plan
As for the tactical plan, we’d start by having the funders convening a working group comprised of Campus Compact, a professor from each university, and the impact experts. They would be charged with developing a standard curriculum that would enable groups of 3-4 students each to do impact measurement on a local NPO as part of the course on the subject matter. The funders would only cover the overhead of the project and curriculum development. Campus Compact would fund their portion of their work from federal funds.
The foundations then would invite a select group of small NPOs to participate. The group should be representative of the diversity of mission, geography, and model. The NPOs would still have to cover the operational costs of the project, including very modest stipends for the students. The amounts should be small enough to be affordable but enough to keep everybody accountable and have some skin in the game.
The working group would evaluate each round and make adjustments as needed. Eventually, we would finish with an “impact measurement course and project guideline” in a box. California Campus Compact would be charged with distributing that to its 50 member colleges in the state and across the nation through the national Campus Compact.
And with that, Benevolent Dictator retires back to the command bunker, preparing the next big move.

View more blog entries.