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A Gold Mine of Data About Smart Ways to Help Nonprofits

Much of my 32-year career working for nonprofits has been as a consultant who helps organizations make better use of technology.

As I look for ways to improve my practice, I get feedback from clients and (try) to keep up on a never-ending stream of technology information. But instruction on how to design workshops or consulting engagements, the cornerstone of my practice, is not quite as plentiful. Even more difficult to find are studies about what nonprofits are looking for in a consultant relationship. That type of information is pure gold.

And that is exactly what will soon be available from a study underwritten by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. I learned about the preliminary results at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s conference, Better Philanthropy: From Data to Impact, where I attended a discussion with Kathy Reich, a program officer at the Packard Foundation, and Paul Connolly, a nonprofit management consultant, about preliminary findings from the foundation’s Organizational Effective Goldmine Research Project, which analyzes 1,300 grants that were designed to make nonprofits stronger.

Ms. Reich offered some context. The Packard Foundation Organizational Effectiveness program resulted from David Packard’s belief that nonprofits needed to invest in themselves—coaching, leadership, strategic planning—as does the for-profit world, where he created his successful computer business. The foundation’s focus on this topic spurred the development of philanthropy’s focus on making nonprofits more effective.

The last evaluation of Packard’s work to help nonprofits improve their operations was a decade ago. A retrospective evaluation, the foundation figured, would no doubt produce a “goldmine” of insights, she says, hence the project’s name. Now Packard is setting out to analyze this rich data set to answer these questions:

From the preliminary analysis, Mr. Connolly says, it’s already clear that it’s important to look at the difference between “transformative” and “transactional” approaches to making organizations work better.  Transformative efforts might be a strategic-planning process that changes the way the organization works. Transactional efforts are projects like building a Web site or an accounting system.

He also said the results suggest that the “ready, set, go” framework so many of us use with clients is not working as well as it could.

Many consultant focus on the “ready, set” part—expert consulting that helps grantees prepare to conduct research or put a new approach or strategy in place. But just as important, he says, is the “go” part of the equation, where nonprofit executives need coaches, peer exchanges, or other sources of advice to truly transform their organizations.

One of the preliminary findings about what makes for a successful consulting engagement: Consultants must understand the grantee’s culture and provide a customized approach.

When I think about my own work, I realize I need to be agile—for example, in designing materials so I can easily customize them rather than starting from scratch each time.

One thing I’ve found helpful has been to create a personal online learning space or portfolio, where I can quickly draw and repurpose materials and engage in conversations with peers.

Do the findings from the OE Goldmine project resonate with your practice? Come join the discussion and put your thoughts and advice here, too.

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