The Burden of Proof

Competition among nonprofits for donor dollars has always been stiff, but Giving Tuesday takes the competition to a whole new level. The marketplace of need has never been so cluttered. If you’re reading this blog, you’re online; if you’re online, you’ve seen plenty of appeals for money – these pleas seem to make up at least 90% of online content today. If Giving Tuesday had overlapped with the recent ALS fundraising frenzy, the Internet might have spontaneously combusted but for all the buckets of ice water sloshing around.

What’s the best approach to Giving Tuesday, and giving everyday? Which organizations will be the best stewards of your hard-earned money? Even if you believe whole-heartedly in the mission, how can you tell if a particular program or approach is effective?

Go ahead – ask for proof. But please don’t ask for too much.

Most nonprofit organizations can measure two kinds of things: activity and outcomes. The best organizations generally measure both, but not always. As a donor, it’s important to know what an organization measures and why.

Measuring activity is fairly simple. A food pantry tracks how many people come through the door and how much food gets distributed. A community center measures how many teens and adults participate in its programs. A children’s theater counts all performances at inner city schools and the number of children who attend them.

Metrics like these used to be enough, but thanks to resources like Charity Navigator and GuideStar, donors today probe deeper. They ask about overhead spending and administrative costs, and they definitely ask about outcomes.

Outcomes are extremely important. To demand detailed outcome measurement from every charity, however, can present a burden so great that collecting the data detracts from completing the mission.

Let’s use the example of the children’s theater. Let’s say this organization’s mission is to bring age-appropriate performances to underprivileged kids in their school environment. The audience is almost always new to theater and has never seen a play, heard a concert, or experienced performance art of any kind. Their schools can’t afford an arts curriculum and these children don’t have access to art in their homes and communities. If the children’s theater asked for money on Giving Tuesday, would you give?

Some donors would ask if the theater’s work makes a difference in the lives of the children then serve. A valid question, but not one that is easily answered.

Some of the children who see the shows are profoundly impacted. They may go home and describe the performance to their parents. They may ask their teachers to help them find books about the play. The show may spark a life-long love of theater or storytelling in some. Maybe a fidgety little boy sat at rapt attention for the first time all year, his eyes glued to the stage. Maybe a shy little girl finally came out of her shell at recess, imitating the characters.

All of the above are important, positive outcomes, but they are hard to prove. Unless they hire staff to follow up with each school and collect anecdotal stories about student behavior, or unless they create a database of children who see their shows and follow their academic and social progress through the years (privacy rules make this practically impossible), the theater company can’t rigorously prove anything.

Does this mean its work has no value? Of course not. Sometimes the burden of proving so is just too high. Trying to measure outcomes might strip scarce funding from the actual theater work, resulting in fewer performances and fewer kids served. The marketing materials probably feature quotes from delighted children or appreciative school principals, but not hard data. As a donor, maybe you’re comfortable with that because you believe what the actors do – that they are making small differences by giving their audiences something no one else will give them.

I’m not inherently against outcome measurement – large organizations with multi-million dollar budgets that serve hundreds of thousands of clients can and should invest in the tools to prove their work is effective. But as someone who has seen small, high-functioning organizations take their eyes off the ball because donors were more interested in the scoreboard, I’m wary of outcomes for outcomes’ sake.

Sometimes it’s easier to find donors who already believe, and who are willing to relieve their favorite charities of the burden of proof.

On this Giving Tuesday, may all worthy organizations find such donors. May we all give generously. And may we all be thankful that no one is asking us to dump buckets of ice water over our heads again.



3 thoughts on “The Burden of Proof

  1. Diane Rose

    Hi there I also noticed too that once you give your name is spread among all the folks with “needs” Indian schools, Make a wish, Ronald Mc Donald house, St Judes, Salvation Army to name a few … and of course they send you the return address labels nicely decorated for the holidays or even a coin to conjure up a guilt trip if you don’t give . These appeals don’t tell you how much they spend on administrative costs or advertising etc… or how many kids or families they help I assume if your heart is pulled in one direction you will choose … but why sell their lists to others … I would love the insanity to stop Love Aunt DianeDate: Tue, 2 Dec 2014 13:11:52 +0000 To:

  2. Aileen Murphy

    Thanks for your post, especially at this time of year. I often have so much guilt when I toss all the appeals into my recycling bin whilst shopping online for more holiday gifts that aren’t “needed” but could very well serve better those in need. I feel more comfortable when I can see the “value” of where our philanthropic funds are spent. For me it’s having some connection to the organization which was highlighted for me in you using children’s theater as an example of good value but hard to get outcome data. I intrinsically believe in the value of children participating in the arts, so easier for me to give money there without asking for any data neuron what they are doing.

    1. lmctaggart2013 Post author

      Don’t feel guilt about tossing appeals! If we said yes to all of them, we’d all be living in cardboard boxes. I’m with you about the value of children and the arts – obviously our kids have benefited so much from that!


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