Nonprofit advisor Caroline Fiennes has a lot to say about how we assess charities. She used to run one herself. Back then, Fiennes would try to figure out whether her organization was achieving its goals but admits she wasn’t always forthcoming about the findings. “When the results were good, we would share them,” she tells us. “And when they weren’t, we didn’t.” Fiennes suspects other charities do the same.
With Giving Evidence, Fiennes’ mission is to improve the quality of data produced by and about nonprofits. “Charities vary markedly in how good they are, so wouldn’t it be a good idea if we could figure out which are the good ones, and get people to fund the good ones and to not fund the bad ones? It’s hard to make evidence-based decisions if loads of the evidence is either missing, or bad quality, or you can’t find it.”
Fiennes says donors often ask to see impact evaluations when deciding whether to back a charity. “You’re going to provide the evidence that’s most flattering to you,” she explains. “I don’t blame charities in this situation; they are simply responding to the incentives that they are under. Those incentives are very badly designed and largely designed by funders.”
Fiennes says when it comes to better charity evaluations, less is more. “There’s a tenet of medical research, which is, ‘Ask an important question, and answer it reliably.’ And I think the way that nonprofit evaluation works is that quite often we are not asking important questions. We are asking every single question, and we are not answering them reliably because we haven’t got the skills or the money or the incentive to answer it properly.”
Fiennes says funders would be better served if they began asking charities to cite research that already exists instead of asking them to create their own. After all, plenty of nonprofits across the country do similar kinds of work. “We do not need every one of these organizations to be conducting an evaluation of their programs,” she says. “We would be much better off if a few people answered the question centrally, and then other people were able to use that answer.”
Fiennes’ latest project looks at the non-publication of research by charities. She wants to find out the extent to which nonprofits are not sharing findings about their work. Fiennes writes that unshared research hurts aid recipients in two ways. “First, donors and other operational charities can’t see what works and therefore what to fund or replicate, so may implement something avoidably suboptimal.” Secondly, she points out that research consumes resources, “which could perhaps be better spent on delivering something that does work.” Fiennes’ Giving Evidence is in the early stages of the study, and she promises to report back on the results. We plan to post the findings here.
Many organizations are working to improve the way nonprofits do their work. Fiennes herself is on the Advisory Boards of two of them: The Center for Effective Philanthropy and the rating agency Charity Navigator.
Fiennes’ Third Sector column: “We Should Be on our Guard Against Bad Research That Leads Us to Waste Time and Money – and Possibly Lives”
From Fiennes’ Giving Evidence blog: Charities Should Do Much Less Evaluation