Measuring success at helping people is hard; it has inherent limits; it’s time-consuming; and it’s expensive. But it has to be done.
The first reason is that no matter how much sense an idea makes in your head, translating it to reality is another matter. I’d argue that acceptance of this basic idea is the single reason that we now have medical alternatives to prayer.
The second reason is that there are a a LOT of different charities out there for a donor to choose from – and without some sense of what they’ve actually accomplished, a donor has nothing to go on but theories and brochures. To me, that’s not much better than flinging our money randomly around the globe, with anyone who has a good story and a good accountant getting a chance to play. That isn’t a reasonable approach to solving the world’s problems.
The question of how to evaluate a given charity’s activities is a question for another day. It depends on the charity and it’s pretty much never easy. The question for today is, why isn’t it done more thoroughly and more often? And the answer for today (though it’s only one factor) is that funders don’t want to pay for it.
Children’s Aid Society has explicitly told us they’re concerned about funders’ reactions to the amount of their budget that is going to evaluation, “as opposed to” helping people – and that they’ve been unable to execute a major community school evaluation they’ve mapped out because it exceeds the “evaluation budget” designated in their grants. We asked New Visions for Public Schools why they don’t seem to have had the same problem, and they told us that they have, but that they’ve made a priority of fighting for larger evaluation budgets from their own funders. Over and over again, when we ask charities why they haven’t measured things that seem measurable, they’ve responded that the people who fund them don’t want it: many of their funds are often officially earmarked for non-evaluation purposes, and even when they’re not, they’re concerned about donors’ wishes to “get the money right to the people who need it.”
You and I are lucky that the people who build our bridges, cars, and airplanes don’t decide they can get more money directly to us if they cut their testing budget. The people served by nonprofits should be so lucky.