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At first glance it looks like Imagine Canada has done a good job of putting a standards program in place for charities and nonprofits.

This kind of accountability and transparency has been a long time coming it should be no surprise for those in the sector.

The standards cover

  1. Board Governance
  2. Financial Accountability & Transparency
  3. Ethical Fundraising
  4. Staff Management
  5. Volunteer Involvement

They are tiered depending on size of organization with modest fees for accreditation. The standards and the process are all available on the website and from my cursory look, the standards are written in plain language for ease of understanding.

http://www.imaginecanada.ca/standards/the_standards

http://www.imaginecanada.ca/files/www/en/standards/standards_program_handbook_may_2012.pdf

To my delight, the standards are rooted in a strategic framework.

Vision: A Canada where well-run and well-respected charities and nonprofits make a positive contribution within communities across the country and around the world.

Mission: To build excellence within Canada’s charities and nonprofits through common standards of practice and to strengthen confidence in the sector.

Goals

1. Help Canadian charities and nonprofits improve their practices in five foundational areas: board governance, financial accountability, fundraising, staff management, and volunteer involvement.

2.Increase the transparency of charities and nonprofits in these foundational areas.

3.Recognize organizations that meet the standards.

4.Strengthen public confidence in individual charitable and nonprofit organizations and the sector as a whole.

They’ve been through testing on some very recognizable nonprofit organizations and with the strength of positioning of Imagine Canada, this is a movement that can not be ignored.

Good reference material for any nonproft

Beyond an accreditation program, this material is free guidance on how to structure or run a solid nonprofit. It  is a set of best practices presented in an easy-to-read 16 page PDF. So if you are running a nonprofit take advantage of this great resource. And if you’re thinking of supporting a nonprofit, these standards give you a good checklist for an evaluation.

T-shirts have been generally accepted outer apparel for years now. Generally they are plain or branded to reflect the designer or manufacturer or a billboard for a cause, statement, institution or personal reflection.

I am a believer in the power of t-shirts. When you see enough of them – as I do Abercrombie and Fitch – I conclude that this is a popular and powerful brand. When I see a t-shirt on an influential person, I think brand endorsement. If I see someone with a city or university branded t-shirt I think of pride of association.

When I was the entrepreneur-in-residence at Laurier University, I had a t-shirt made. I used a university t-shirt and added my title to the back so that I was a walking billboard for my role. It made people aware of the role and identified me as the individual who provided the service. I was no longer just a stranger in their midst.

As I now volunteer with my own alma mater I wear a new t-shirt. This one I wear with pride in the great learning institution that is the University of Toronto. In my new role to engage and connect my fellow alumni with each other and the University, I can think of no better enabler than to have all alum also proudly wear the t-shirt.

That way we could walk down the street, anywhere UofT alumni happen to be, and see not only our community but pride amplified. Don’t underestimate the power of a t-shirt as a visible brand indicator.

I can’t believe how many organizations run without a plan. How do you know you’re getting somewhere? How do you decide what initiatives to undertake? How do you allocate budgets or people efforts?

I realize that many consultants or organizations make strategic planning a painful and useless process but I truly believe in having everyone wear the same t-shirt, be able to tie their work into the greater mandate and understand what success means.

No plans for us

There seems to be 3 reasons folks don’t have a useful plan:

  • Big bureaucratic organizations do planning as an isolated task instead of a tool to support real work. They’ve lost the spirit of the strategic planning.
  • In entrepreneurial organizations the plan, which changes often, remains locked in the head of the boss.
  • Organizations don’t know the concepts, benefits and techniques of strategic planning.

The classic model works with some extras

I am a believer in the classic model of mission, vision, goals and objectives.

Then I take it further, adding tactics, so that the real work we do can be laddered up to the objectives. You can see the meaning and understand management decisions since there’s a path from work tasks to more broadly defined objectives.

And I add success metrics from the bottom to the top, again laddering lower level task measures up to the higher level measures that show attainment of goals and objectives.

Add realism and commitment

Now I may sound like “one of those consultants” but I am far too practical and pragmatic to make this a useless process. I have a fast, yet inclusive, and decisive process that I use to get this “stuff on paper.” And I live these plans…post them up…make decisions based on the charts and measure my progress.

This model worked well for my clients when I was a paid consultant. Now that I’m a strategic volunteer, it’s working amazingly well in the non-profit space.

I don’t know why anyone would spend an hour of effort without knowing where they’re going!

Measurement is hot

Less than a month ago I was noting the need for metrics for non-profits as I make my decisions on how to direct my social investing – not just giving to charity for the “feel good” reasons but actually looking at donations as an investment with a measurable return.

Turns out that measurement is quite the hot topic in the non-profit sector – sort of a tsunami that has quite a few folks living in fear of the day that they need to do something serious about measurement. Their fear is understandable. Good metrics are hard to come by.

They require good systems for collection and reporting, and efficient procedures for point of source collection without undue burden on already overburdened staff. But aside from the machinery that collects and reports, the big questions are what to collect and how to report, how to analyze to determine key findings and what to do about them.

These are systems and skills not typically found in folks that have made caring and giving, service delivery, their lifetime purpose.

Benchmarks

Besides the metrics within an organization or associated with an initiative, there are comparative metrics and benchmarks needed to give perspective on these numbers. What are the standards for this kind of industry, cause, or initiative? Year over year numbers from one organization may sound good, but how are they relative to similar organizations – their competition, if you will.

Awards for transparency

I can tell you that I felt better about my donation to Covenant House recently when I saw a large notice in the Globe and Mail, that Covenant had won the 2009 voluntary section reporting award (for excellence in financial reporting transparency) in their size category issued by a prestigious group of folks who know a few things about numbers: Queens School of Business, Chartered Accountants of Ontario and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Standards

Another group that is attempting to put some standards in place is The London Benchmarking Group (Canadian branch is at http://www.lbg-canada.ca). It’s a community of companies working toward a higher standard in the management, valuation and performance measurement of corporate community investment. Worldwide, each branch is managed by a local host organization. In Canada it’s the SiMPACT Strategy Group, experts in social return on investment.

 

No doubt there will be more about the metrics associated with non-profits. It’s a lesson that the corporate world is still struggling with as their stakeholders demand more accountability and transparency. It will be no different for non-profits and their stakeholders.

Choosing who to help

With so many good causes out there, it’s difficult to choose who to support. Many folks I’ve met are drawn to a specific cause often because of circumstances. That might be a love of children, personal struggle with poverty or family illness.

Looking for the big impact

For me, I’m looking for the biggest bang for the buck – the biggest impact. I’m looking for organizations that make efficient use of donations and have a direct, positive impact on a problem. And so I’m looking for metrics, impact measurement not just anecdotal evidence and good stories.

With my digital background I am used to pioneering measurement where little existed before. The advertising industry offered mostly tear sheets and good stories before the web came along and brought with it the capacity to measure every visit, click and sale. And I started my career in accounting where audited financial statements brought at least a level playing field so that by comparison one could achieve some level of understanding of progress.

What’s out there

So what have I found so far? A mixed bag. Yes, the bigger causes put their financial statements on their websites. You get top level numbers that show you a kind of expense ratio – how much of the input goes to the output. But aside from the feel good stories at the front the report, it’s difficult to determine the true impact of specific initiatives.

I did find an interesting site called GiveWell. It’s a bunch of financial analysts in the US that are bringing a more holistic approach to evaluating the effectiveness of donations.

Unlike existing evaluators, which focus solely on financials, assessing administrative or fundraising costs, we focus on how well programs actually work – i.e., their effects on the people they serve.

And on the other side of the equation I found an interesting report from Imagine Canada on what people give. They group giving into: donations, volunteering and helping others directly. Turns out that the churches actually get the most donations-they got 46% of the $10 billion Canadians donated in 2007! I would have thought it was one of the medical causes.

I’m sure there’s more info out there. In the mean time, my quest is to find the biggest bang for the buck. Perhaps I have to start by helping organizations define their metrics for measuring their impact.

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