A willingness to innovate, experiment, and evaluate is widespread in the nonprofit world—what’s missing is the money to spread innovative ideas that succeed.
That’s one of the primary messages of a study released today by the Johns Hopkins University’s Listening Post Project. The study was based on a survey of more than 400 social-service, economic-development, and arts charities.
More than 80 percent of organizations in the survey said they had adopted at least one innovative program in the past five years. But more than two-thirds said that, while they had identified an innovative program in the past two years, they were unable to adopt it, generally because they lacked the money.
Innovation was more common at large nonprofit groups than small ones, according to the study. Ninety-one percent of survey respondents with budgets greater than $3-million said they had adopted at least one innovative program or service in the past five years, compared with 75 percent of groups with budgets under $500,000.
“Recent discussions of innovation have really focused on new start-ups, the social entrepreneurs, the social ventures,” said Lester M. Salamon, director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins and one of the report’s authors. “The tendency is to think that as organizations grow in size, they lose their innovative spirit, but that doesn’t seem to find support in the data.”
Meanwhile, 85 percent of charities in the survey said they measured the effectiveness of at least a portion of their programs and services at least once a year.
The most common approach was to focus on ways to quantify a charity’s work, such as the number of performances an orchestra holds or the number of meals a soup kitchen serves.
But many charities also looked beyond the numbers to figure out what results they had produced, such as whether they were making a dent in curbing hunger or homelessness in their communities, with nearly 70 percent of groups that evaluate their work reporting that they used such so-called outcome measurements.
Very few charity leaders reported downsides to measurement and evaluation. Only 7 percent said they were less able to take risks because of their focus on measurement, and just 8 percent said they had struggled to keep costs low because of evaluation requirements,
While nonprofit leaders recognized the benefits of evaluating whether their efforts made a difference, they wished there were better tools for doing so. Eighty-two percent of respondents said they needed improved tools to measure the qualitative impact of their work, and 81 percent called for measurement tools that took less time to use.
“The message that evaluation is important is heard loud and clear,” one respondent told researchers. “The message that we need help developing the methodology to do so and the assistance in implementing it and paying for it is not being heard at all.”
The study is available on the Center for Civil Society Studies’ Web site.