Since moving to Washington D.C. and deciding to pursue a Master of Public Administration degree with a focus on nonprofit management, I have been to a lot of job and internship interviews at nonprofit organizations. As is the case with any job or internship search, some of these interviews have proven more fruitful than others. But what I have found to be the case (although this was not really something I thought about much going into the process) was what an eye-opener this process has been. As the holiday season approaches and many people prepare to give their annual donation to whatever organization or cause they feel is important, I invite you to ask yourself a few questions before you write that check this year.
1.) Is the organization an advocacy group or a direct service provider?
Chances are, if you're giving to an organization, you know what they stand for. They stand for "saving the environment" or "women's rights" or "LGBT equality" or "eliminating global poverty." And you, being a good person, stand for those things, too. That's great but it doesn't answer the question of what the organization does. What is their strategy for accomplishing this goal?
For example, some organization engage in direct service provision. Community health clinics, domestic violence shelters, libraries, and food banks are all classic examples of this type of nonprofit. They provide some kind of direct service to individuals. Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health services (birth control, physical examinations, STD testing, pregnancy testing, the HPV vaccine, and in some cases abortion). The Ronald McDonald House houses the families of sick children while they receive medical care. Your local homeless shelter or domestic violence shelter provides homeless people or victims of abuse with somewhere to go during difficult times. To find out how well organizations like this are fulfilling their mission and what quality of services they are providing, you can ask those they serve. You can even offer to volunteer at some of these organizations to see how well you think they're serving the individuals they claim to serve. If the group helps those far away, see if you can find independent online testimonials about how good (or not so good) the group is at fulfilling its mission to them. In any event, it is oftentimes not too difficult to get a picture of the end product of these organizations' work because they interact directly with those they are helping.
However, some organizations do not engage very often in direct service provision. They serve as advocates for causes they think are important. When these organizations do intervene directly for individuals, it is in the hopes that their work will have a wider impact. Examples of organizations like this include the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Human Rights Campaign. It can sometimes be difficult to tell how effective these organization are in achieving their mission. When organizations like this are effective, they can create massive amounts of change. When they are ineffective, they can hold back social movements and causes, diverting money, talent, and energy away from more effective means of advocacy. It can be hard to know who to ask about these organizations as well. The average LGBT person probably cannot tell you how well or how poorly the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force represents them. Only the most political and informed gun owners may have a sense for how well the NRA is representing their interests and this sense may not be entirely well-informed. Thankfully, there are ways to measure impact that will be discussed in greater depth later.
2.) What exactly does the organization do and how effective are they at doing it?
First of all, I would look on an organization's website to get a sense of how they impact their cause of choice. Are they a direct service provider? Are they an advocacy group? Do they do both? If they are a legal group, do they do their best to help all individuals needing a certain kind of legal assistance (battered women, indigent populations, etc.) or do they focus more on impact litigation (like the ACLU)?
For direct service providers you will want to ascertain exactly what programs the organization has and how easy they are to access. A good question to ask yourself in these cases is "If I was in the population this organization serves, what services could they offer me, how important to me would they be, and how easy would they be to access?"
Figuring out what an advocacy group does can be a little trickier. A poke around their website can be helpful, but there are better ways of measuring a group's impact when they are of this type. I would argue that media coverage can be significant. When an issue is discussed on the news, in newspapers, or in magazines, how often do certain organizations receive a mention? If they are mentioned frequently, they are probably recognized as providing a definitive voice on a certain topic.
Secondly, I would do some research into how the organization effects policy change. If they go through the courts, do their legal challenges tend to be significant and successful? If they lobby legislators, how successful have they been in this endeavor? How much access do they really have to leaders with the power to effect change? For example, the effectiveness of some lobbying groups is legendary. (For example, AIPAC, the Israel lobby, is well known for being extremely effective.) The most effective lobbyists not only convince leaders, they are involved with writing the legislation they want. Some organizations (I am sad to say that all of the national non-legal LGBT groups fall into this category) are much less effective. They never really gain much access to the halls of power. And while money can sometimes buy more effective lobbyists or strategists, oftentimes it simply allows for the continuation of ineffective tactics and non-responsive leadership within nonprofits. If an organization's list of accomplishments is much smaller than their operating budget should indicate, then perhaps it is wise to find an organization with a stronger track record. Here it is instructive to think of Christ and his parable of the talents. If someone can do a decent amount with what little they have, they can be trusted with more. If they are given a lot and do little with it, then it is unlikely that continuing to give to them will be very fruitful.
Thirdly, I would look at some hard numbers. What percentage of a group's budget goes toward their staff's salaries? I certainly think that it is important to pay those working in the nonprofit sector well and oftentimes with advocacy groups, the staff include lobbyists or litigators who are responsible for the success of the cause itself. But if more money seems to go towards paying staff than anything else and the group doesn't seem to be very effective, then I would give elsewhere.
3.) What is the relationship of an organization's activities to the end goal?
Some organizations seem to do a poor job of connecting their current activities to a clearly defined end goal. Sometimes the end goal (eliminating global poverty, ending all racism) is so broad and unattainable as to be laughable. Other times the goal is more reasonable (providing shelter for all of our city's homeless who wish to utilize it during the coldest months of the year, achieving racial parity on a certain standardized test in a given number of years) but the means of achieving it seem to bear little relation to the end result.
For instance, let's say that an organization wants to help lessen the prevalence of STDs in a community. Providing a free or low cost health clinic in the community that everyone knows about is a good start. So is providing free classes on STD prevention and treatment. Handing out cheap condoms that will probably break to people on the street is silly. It is a one time, ineffective solution to the problem.
This is my problem with Teach for America. We can disagree about how best to improve the education of our nation's youth. However, I am fairly certain that sending small numbers of inexperienced teachers into communities they know nothing about for short amounts of time is not a practical or sustainable solution to the problem. While it may make the volunteers feel good about themselves, it is not going to make a big dent in our nation's education-oriented problems.