Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Change for the Better?

In November of 2000 (exactly 11 years ago), a newsletter from one of Canada's largest health care foundations included a variety of observations about "changes that are occurring in the not-for-profit sector."  It struck me as I read them that we've come a long way on many of these topics, but in several cases actually gone in the wrong direction.  I invite you to consider whether we as a sector have addressed these items, and if so, have things gotten better or worse?  On on macro scale, how have we as a society fared with respect to some of these concerns? Here is a shortened (but otherwise unedited) version of the newsletter.

Donations are up, but the donor base is shrinking: In 1998, 202,000 fewer Canadians reported charitable donations to Revenue Canada than in 1991.

More Canadians are volunteering, but time is at a premium: In 1997, 72 percent of all volunteer hours in Canada came from only eight percent of Canadian adults, and average hours per volunteer had dropped 22 percent from 1987.

Fund raising competition is growing: More and bigger fund raising campaigns raise fears about 'crowding out' small charities. Do all boats rise on a high tide, or will some be swamped?

Values are shifting: Globalization seems to place competition ahead of communities, and consumers ahead of citizens - are compassion and sharing passe?

Our sense of community is fracturing: 'I'm OK, and you're not.' Rich and poor are growing farther apart, as poverty grows while the economy booms.

Charities have an identity crisis: Some are becoming more like businesses in order to 'earn' revenue; others are assuming the traditional roles of government.

'Impact' and 'outcomes' are in doubt: It's considered bad to be a 'do-gooder' who only applies band-aids, yet charities that work for structural, social or attitudinal change are branded as 'political'.

So, how far have we come in over a decade? Clearly the view from a major foundation in 2000 was that our sector and those we serve were under stress. I'm particularly concerned that rich and poor have only grown further apart over the 11 years, and now the economy is not booming.  In the end, this only underscores the vital nature of charitable work in all its forms.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Law of Unintended Consequences: Goal Setting 101

In September I wrote about the value of metrics and the importance of and processes for setting goals for organizations in both the for profit and not-for-profit worlds. However, this mindset can also have significant unintended negative consequences if the implications of the goals are not well thought out. We're all familiar with this idea in the context of the for profit world when goals or incentives are in place that inadvertently encourage short cuts or reduce safety. In the charitable world the impacts can be more insidious.

This is not to suggest that creativity in using data to set goals can't have wonderful effects. For example in sports a "re-thinking" of what makes a valuable player created new ways to manage a baseball team (as documented in Moneyball) and led to on-field successes. But in the charitable world we're often dealing with organizations that directly impact life and death - so how they're measured, funded and rewarded takes on an especially important meaning.

Consider these two examples.  Imagine you're a mental health organization and your provincial funding metrics include how quickly you "graduate" patients through your program. Sounds superficially like a good way to encourage efficiency. Or perhaps you're working with youth who have learning disabilities and you want to tout metrics with respect to successful "completion" of the entire process. You might argue that this helps keep the process moving along and encourages possible donors.

However, in both cases the leaders of these organizations may also be less likely to take on prospective patients or clients who present the most complex, most challenging and least likely to succeed characteristics.  Likely the very folks who need these services the most. This isn't to criticize those who have to make these tough decisions, but to highlight how metrics, efficiency incentives and goals need to be very carefully thought out.  Otherwise they can have the effect of leaving those who need it most out in the cold. Literally.