Execution Matters: Evaluation and Getting Advocacy Right

In this final post on The Future of Nonprofits, I want to focus on a key point from early in the book, about how many (perhaps most) nonprofit organizations and their leaders are far better at coming up with creative approaches to solving problems (and accomplishing their core missions) than executing those ideas consistently and effectively.

It’s not meant to be a total bash on nonprofits and their employees; really, given how under-resourced most nonprofits are (related to our pathological aversion to investing in “overhead”–those important functions that, in fact, enable our programs and services to succeed) and how much of our working hours we spend trying to sort of keep our heads above water and look effective (whether or not we really know what “effective” would look like in our specific context), it’s not surprising that we seldom have the chance to step back and think about the kinds of processes and structures within our organizations (and our own workdays) that would raise our execution ability to a standard of excellence.

Instead, we’re always trying to do more with less (except when we’re admittedly doing less with our less, and busy making excuses for that). We stop doing some of what we should be doing, and close ourselves off to the possibilities of what we could be doing, in ways that mean, somewhat paradoxically, that we have to keep coming up with new inventions to increase our creativity, in order to compensate for how poorly we’re managing to pull off what it is that we do.

Exhausted yet?

In the advocacy context specifically, I see this when we develop campaigns that drift towards a new gimmick, or rely excessively on a particular technology, as though those are the tricks that will deliver the outcome we seek. We’re continually trying to one-up ourselves in terms of a slogan or a media event or a high-profile endorser, when what we should really focus on is hiring really good organizers, or investing in our relationships with our constituents, or personally connecting with every target policymaker (or all of the above). Or, we jump from issue to issue, diluting our potency and confusing our targets, lulling ourselves with the truth that “there are so many important causes out there.”

The Future of Nonprofits has a chart that shows how we can increase our aggregate impact either by raising our execution ability, even rather modestly, or by dramatically expanding our pool of creative ideas. There’s arguably a need for both. Given limited resources, though, it’s much more efficient to focus on marginally improving our delivery, especially because it can ripple into other areas of our organizational functioning, in terms of relationships built and skills enhanced.

And, so, what would it take to improve our execution in the advocacy arena?

First, we have to rigorously evaluate what it is that we’re doing: what isn’t working, and what is, and what really tips the balance. We have to identify our organizational and individual advocacy capacities, build up the areas where we are weakest, and develop benchmarks for what we should be delivering. We need to fully investigate where our own efforts have fallen short before assuming that our advocacy failures are to be blamed on adverse political or economic conditions. We need transparency and accountability for what our campaigns set out to do, just as we do in the fundraising and direct services arenas.

And we need organizational cultures committed not just to innovation, and not just to advocacy, but to excellence, and to intellectual honesty about how well we’re executing our most core programmatic functions, too.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article about advocacy evaluation when a Board member for one of the organizations for which I do consulting (we were volunteering at the same event, and I’m never without reading material) looked over my shoulder. She shook her head at the article’s premise that the field of advocac evaluation is far behind that of traditional programmatic assessment, and I think that her critique is largely valid: too often, our obvious good works, in the nonprofit sector, excuse the fact that they’re not always done well.

In advocacy as in the rest of our endeavors, that’s an oversight we cannot afford.

In the new year, we may find that we don’t need to continually come up with as many new strategies or “innovative” approaches, if we are consistently doing what we do very, very well. And implementing evaluation systems that allow us–no, require us–to know when that is the case.

We won’t have to take as many shots, in other words, if we can hit them when we need to.

21 responses to “Execution Matters: Evaluation and Getting Advocacy Right

  1. Melinda it took a great deal of reflection on an understanding of what is intended by the blog. In research this semester we have been reviewing peer reviewed articles and journals. I found myself looking at non-profit agencies as a research project with great theories and objective that had not had great methods of gathering empirical data to support effective projects or produce community programs that show how they have been effective to the populations that showed a need. Where are the assessments behind the needs? Are they simply great ideas or interventions or is there true need based practices in the non-profits. I believe this to be true of many! Just an example it how far Catholic Charities has evolved over the years. There has been so much awareness and programming by this agency that many of us know it as a very profound agency. This shows that there is good example of how non-profits can be efficient in a community.

  2. I love the part where you said “we may find that we don’t need to continually come up with as many new strategies or “innovative” approaches, if we are consistently doing what we do very, very well.” How much time do we spend coming up with new strategies and approaches, that could be better served helping our clients? Think of the time we could put toward helping our clients! If we already found a way to serve them effectively and don’t need to spend our time thinking of new ideas, we could commit even more time to helping them.
    I do believe that agencies need to be continually evaluating their programs, to make sure they are still effective. Many agencies feel too busy or lack the funds to do this. It needs to be made more of a priority for social service agencies.

  3. Matthew Kelley

    I agree with Ashley. The time spent on trying to “get our name out there” could be used far more effectively at what we already do so well: serving the population. I love the company that I work for but even it fails in this category. We are constantly looking at how to get more funding and who we can get to sign as a large endorser. I understand that this is a goal of the company but I believe that if there was more focus on who and how we can do this effectively we would have time to focus on who really matters. I understand that it is a difficult trend to break. I believe that if each nonprofit had a hired organizer and advocate we would be better off. This would let the direct staff be able to focus their efforts back on the clients. I love that my company wants to take a stand and advocate, however sometimes I think that this would be far more effective if we had the right people doing it. I have enjoyed reading your posts on non-profits and have learned a lot. I already knew that non-profits were a work in progress and that a lot of them are in it for the wrong reasons, however you showed how macro social work can play a role in these organizations so that we can better serve in a clinical aspect.

    • These are important points–to a certain extent, raising the visibility of the organization can absolutely enhance its ability to fulfill its mission, because more awareness of the organization can translate to greater support for the cause. But when you’re serving that master, instead of being focused on the cause and the clients, it’s obviously a problem. What signs should organizations look for that they may be drifting in this way? What can they do if they suspect as much?

      On Tue, Apr 22, 2014 at 9:36 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  4. Stephanie McGuire

    I completely agree with being 100% open and receptive to finding the weaknesses so that they bugs can be fixed and processes can run more smoothly. By looking at what is working and what is not working (and I think a lot of this information can come from the employees that are actually doing the work) we can gain a better understanding of changes that need to be made going forward. By spending the time up front to find out what works and what doesn’t work more focus can be put on client interactions and the mission of the agency.

  5. Kendra Swartz

    I think a lot of this information is true not only for the non-profit sector. I am extremely lucky in that the company I work for is committed to doing these things, so I get to see them in action. It’s quite a small company and in a kind of obscure niche, but it spends no money on advertising past the cost of printing up business cards and letterhead. It’s been around for a couple of decades, and started with a reputation: the owner had been working in the field and quit to have children, but quickly found that she was known enough and trusted enough that there were people constantly coming to her for advice, which turned into the current consulting company. Since then the company has continued in the same way: they do excellent work for the sake of doing excellent work, and it shows. Customers are referred by word of mouth more often than bids are put out for jobs, and they quickly develop positive personal connections that benefit everyone involved.

    What I love about this is it’s a fantastic WORKING model of these ideas of doing things well. I get to see in action all the different ways it can benefit a company that also has a goal of being profitable (and therefore can’t hide behind the idea of being a helping agency), and then I can apply the idea to a field where the primary objective is effective and positive change.

  6. Chandra Smalley

    We don’t need to re-invent the wheel to put two and two together. Success results in the means of our analysis. Continuous evaluation of best practices that are client driven is going to accomplish core missions. As simple as it sounds, are we measuring what we are intending to measure? Excellent leaders find their niche and become pioneers in their field from doing what they do best. Advocating for what they do best and continuous evaluation to promptly identify areas of improvement or program evolution of best practices that serve our clients relative needs will result in progress and advancement. A clear and concise process for achieving predetermined objectives and goals and a standard of excellence speaks volumes and will produce consistent and effective outcomes.

  7. I really like this, Chandra! Too often, we make evaluation sound/seem so distant, complicated, ‘fancy’. That then is often used as an excuse not to do evaluation, because we’ve made it seem out of reach, when that’s not honest; as you point out, there are absolutely things we can (and must) do to connect the dots, so to speak, and raise important insights about our work. Thanks for peeling back the curtain!

  8. I agree. I don’t think we need more innovations in evaluation, we just need to make sure it’s truly reflective of the populations we are serving and what we are trying to measure. I feel evaluations are the best way to get a full view of the agency’s effectiveness as a whole. I just touched on the evaluation of programs through matrix forms at our agency in my recent community paper. I’m a firm believer in trying to make changes where they are needed but sometimes I feel clients get lost in the quest for dollars. I understand that the agency has to find funding sources, I just feel evaluations don’t always give the full picture so I would rather client’s have more time in areas to make change even if it doesn’t look good on paper. I think as the case manager, you can then advocate for those few clients that are not meeting the expected time limits. Sometimes I don’t think we are measuring the right things but I do believe evaluations are necessary. In my opinion the clients and the case managers working with the clients would be best in understanding how agency services are working best for them. Evaluations should be reflective of the same thing. Thanks for this blog!

  9. Great points, Sheria; how often do we ‘innovate’ just because funders expect something new or innovative, losing sight of the importance of maintaining programs on which of our clients have come to depend, or advocating for changes in the underlying conditions that necessitate ongoing programming. If we were as serious about accountability as about innovation, we may find that it’s not so much that our existing programs aren’t working, but that we’re not adequately supporting them or surrounding them with contexts that facilitate success.

  10. As I was reading this article and the article attached on advocacy I got to thinking of where I did my practicum last year at Salvation Army’s The Children’s Shelter. I remember in particular meeting with the Assistant Divisional Social Service Director who met with me one and discussing fund raising goals and outcomes at Salvation Army. She mentioned having to follow line of authority, stating that since Salvation Army is so large that it had a trickle down effect in the sense that there really weren’t any new ideas. So, I agree with you that in order for a non-profit to succeed that the hiring of effective staff is what counts. To have an effective team; not losing sight of the reason that we are doing non-profit and accepting responsibility is most important for any organization. Problem-solving, delegation of responsibility, a effective organizational structure and finding the best solution will make more of a difference. Making excuses and assigning blame does nothing, except; ruining the credibility of the organization and those who are involved.

    • I’m sorry that that experience was less than positive for you, Chris, but fortunately we can learn valuable lessons from unhealthy organizational cultures as well as healthy ones! What kind of organizational approach appeals to you most? What do you bring to an organization?


  11. Natalie Reeves

    This is undeniably true! We’ve all endured the 100th good idea that only lasts a week into implementation. It is frustrating but it is also a part go growth too. sometimes things have to be tried out in order to see if they will actually work. I agree that having sound employees who understand how things work and can foresee consequences and road blocks are invaluable!

  12. I believe having good and effective employees makes a world of difference. Also having effective leaders will help too. This reminds me of a time when I worked at a nonprofit which I believed had semi-bad leadership within the ranks and I went from giving my all and believing in the company’s message to questioning whether or not things were being done ethically. I feel like my allegiance to the agency was infringing on the rights of the clients and therefore I questioned whether or not I should quit about every other week. It’s hard for a worker to do good work when they normally CAN when they start to question whether or not the work they are doing is actually good.

  13. This sounds a lot like imposter syndrome in a lot of ways. You feel like you are not doing effective work or you feel like your organization is falling apart because it does not belong in the space that it inhabits. So you respond with change in all aspects and lose sight of what your goals truly are. It is difficult to be in this space and I have struggled with all of this as an individual, I could not imagine an organization going through the same thing.
    This may be me preaching to the choir but it is clear that you have to have specific components to do really good work in these spaces. Strong leadership, a good mission statement and a system that has client feedback would fix the problem quickly. Reframing the situation also might be a tactic that is helpful.

  14. I completely agree that we have to develop standards to hold ourselves accountable for what we should be accomplishing with what we have, rather than using what we don’t have as an excuse for not accomplishing what we should be. We have to be honest with ourselves, even if it means seeing things that we don’t want to see and acknowledging that we need to do better. If we are not helping our clients to the extent that we should be, then the first step to making a change is being transparent, honest, and acknowledging that we are not getting it done. Excellence may not always be achievable with the resources that we have, but if we commit ourselves to the pursuit of excellence, this will give us the best chance of improving our services to the extent that it will make a difference for our clients. It is up to the organization to establish a culture of accountability, and evaluations that are reflective of the mission and goals of the organization are a good way to do this. These evaluations must determine whether the organization is effective in accomplishing these tasks, and if not the specific areas of change that need to be addressed. Because the field is changing so frequently, consistent evaluation is absolutely necessary to ensure that the programs are still effective. I think too often we are quick to throw away programs because we believe they aren’t working and spend money on developing a new “innovation” when in reality what the existing programs need is simply more support and accountability to make them work. I really like the sentence “We may find that we don’t need to continually come up with as many new strategies or “innovative” approaches, if we are consistently doing what we do very, very well”. We spend so much time trying to come up with new strategies and innovations when we could better use our time and money improving what we already have, and which people depend on, in order to better serve our clients.

  15. I LOVE this quote of yours, Summer: “Excellence may not always be achievable with the resources that we have, but if we commit ourselves to the pursuit of excellence, this will give us the best chance of improving our services to the extent that it will make a difference for our clients.” How often do we sort of excuse our inaction, because resources are limited and there are some things we can’t do, rather than consistently holding ourselves accountable for what we can–and should–and, indeed, must–do? Thank you for weighing in on this!

  16. Melinda, seeing as my debate assignment for your class is on nonprofits, this was really insightful. I think that it is a hard truth to realize, but valid, that often the drive to make a difference can result in less attention to the deliver of that change. This post kind of made me think to the first day of class when we were talking about organization culture, and how it is common for the culture in nonprofits to be “work, work, work, there is so much to do and I am constantly busy doing things and making a difference”. I think that this post shed light on the dialectic needed between creating change and seeing out the delivery of that change, because if it is not done effectively and thoughtfully, the motivation behind those changes will not be enough to actually make a difference.

  17. It’s common, I think, for the attention to the desired outcome to outweigh consideration of the ‘process’. That can mean, unfortunately, that we never reach the outcome and may conclude it’s because we didn’t have the right strategies, when it may instead be that we didn’t ‘work’ those strategies as intended/needed. What practices and protocols are in place at your practicum to regularly reflect on the work? How do you all learn together, and what questions go unanswered?

  18. Troy Russell

    My initial thought when reading the beginning of this post was how ethics can be tied to the problem of your statement, “our pathological aversion to investing in “overhead”–those important functions that, in fact, enable our programs and services to succeed) and how much of our working hours we spend trying to sort of keep our heads above water and look effective (whether or not we really know what “effective” would look like in our specific context).” Rather than evaluating and assessing how to make improvements there is a lot of scapegoating it seems. The next thought that came to mind was in regard to your mention of advocacy in context with campaign development. It made me think about how we are exploited by various appeals whether emotional, ad hoc, red herring, etc., and as this is the case gimmicks and tech are prioritized over evidence-based and relational interventions. Of course it is a fact of humanity to need to be diligent in this regard, but with underfunding and lacking resources, it makes sense that this is how things play out. The light at the end of the tunnel is the development of the evaluation, assessment, and termination practices.

  19. It’s a really important point, Troy, about the need to be vigilant in our ethical commitments in all aspects of practice. While I do see real issues with organizations paying more attention to the bottom-line (and those Charity Navigator ratings about efficiency) than to the recruitment and retention of skilled professionals who will deliver the best programs and run the most successful operations–what we all know our clients deserve!–it’s also the case that sometimes people get defensive about evaluation data that shine a light on areas of needed improvement, or make excuses about limited budgets or excessive workloads…when we know that our obligation to act with competence and integrity, and to put the clients’ needs at the forefront of our work–always–can’t allow us to flinch from accountability to those we serve (which also means clarity about who the ‘client’ is, as we’ve discussed in class). I wonder what you’ve seen in practice in terms of effective evaluation and assessment practices–of staff, of programs, of leadership–or, conversely, what you’d like to see, as signs of progress?

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