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US Survey Reveals Widespread NFP Innovation

19 May 2010 at 11:41 am
Staff Reporter
A new survey reveals widespread innovation in US Not for Profits with most organisations now measuring their programs’ effectiveness

Staff Reporter | 19 May 2010 at 11:41 am


US Survey Reveals Widespread NFP Innovation
19 May 2010 at 11:41 am

 A new Johns Hopkins University survey has revealed widespread innovation among US Not for Profits, as well as efforts by those organisations to measure their programs’ effectiveness.

The vast majority (82 percent) of responding organisations reported implementing an innovative program or service within the past five years, and 85 percent reported measuring program effectiveness.

The study surveyed a nationwide sample of NFP organisations in four key fields – children and family services, elderly housing and services, community and economic development, and the arts – with 417 organisations responding. It defined an “innovative” program or service as “a new or different way to address a societal problem or pursue a charitable mission that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than prevailing approaches.”

The survey found substantial majorities of organisations in all four fields covered by the survey reported innovative activity during the previous five years, and this was particularly pronounced among larger organisations, challenging the common assumption that organisations become less innovative as they grow in size.

Examples of innovative programs cited by survey respondents included:

  • A distance learning lab linking local grade schools with live feeds from NASA;
  • A music and wellness program that connects a local orchestra to new segments of the community by arranging performances in hospitals, health care facilities, and even patient rooms;
  • An Alzheimer’s day care and resource centre that incorporates the latest research on lighting, colours, design, and acoustics;
  • A transitional support house for domestic violence victims with substance abuse issues that made provisions for residents to stay with their children.

Although innovation is widespread within the sector, more than two-thirds of responding organisations also reported having at least one innovation in the past two years that they wanted to adopt but were unable to. The vast majority of respondents (86 percent) attributed their inability to adopt a proposed innovation to a lack of funding. Other key barriers included the inability to move promising innovations to scale due to lack of “growth capital” (74 percent), narrow governmental funding streams (70 percent), and a tendency among foundations to encourage innovations but then not sustain support for them (69 percent).

Despite concerns that an emphasis on performance measurement might distort organisational missions or cause organisations to sidestep programs with hard-to-achieve outcomes, the great majority of Not for Profits not only reported measuring the effectiveness of their programs, but also reported positive impacts from doing so.

These impacts included staying focused on long-term goals (72 percent), enhancing their reputation in the community (68 percent), and improving their services (68 percent).

Of the 85 percent of NFPs reporting that they measure program effectiveness, virtually all used output measurements, such as the number of individuals served by a soup kitchen or the number of performances given by an orchestra. Nearly 70 percent also reported using outcome measures, which focus on ultimate effects.

The major barriers to more extensive use of performance measurements identified by respondents were a lack of staff time and expertise, and the cost of good evaluation.

The chairman of the Listening Post Project Steering Committee, Peter Goldberg says it’s clear that Not for Profit managers have taken to heart the importance of being able to prove that their programs are effective, but they need technical and financial assistance in implementing evaluation efforts.

Recommendations from survey respondents for helping to overcome the remaining barriers to NFP innovation and performance measurement included better tools to measure qualitative impacts (82 percent of respondents), less time-consuming measurement tools (81 percent), financial resources to support the measurement and research functions (79 percent), greater help from intermediary organisations in fashioning common evaluation tools (67 percent), and training for personnel in how to use these tools (63 percent).

The Listening Post Project is a collaborative undertaking of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies.

The full report called “Nonprofits, Innovation and Performance Measurement: Separating Fact from Fiction” can be downloaded at .

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