TED Conversations

Caroline Avakian

Founder & CEO - SourceRise, Trickle Up Program

This conversation is closed.

What can people who work, support or care about the social sector do to help educate others on more effective ways to measure impact?

Activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta calls out the double standard that drives our broken relationship to charities. Too many nonprofits, he says, are rewarded for how little they spend -- not for what they get done. Instead of equating frugality with morality, he asks us to start rewarding charities for their big goals and big accomplishments (even if that comes with big expenses). In this bold talk, he says: Let's change the way we think about changing the world.

  • Mar 22 2013: I think one of the keys is to get non-finacial based involvement from people not associated with the cause. Formany, it is easy to write a check and many are detached from the charities they support. However, if you get a professional or business leader out cleaning up the beach, helping in an animal shelter, or accomplishing something similar, you have personal commitment. The money will follow. These people often come with skill sets, contacts, knowledge and awareness that carries with it dividends beyond what an extra dollar can provide a charity. When you get these people involved, they also become emissaries for the cause and recruit other talented people who want to become part of the cause as a result of respect or admiration for their friends.

    Big goals are important, but they need to be broken down into smaller tasks and achievements that workers can both see being accomplished and understand how they will eventually solve the larger problem. These small rewards are what motivates volunteers and many involved in a low paying non-profit that has a cause they believe in. Without them, the goal can seem too distance, unrealistic, and unachievable. Small contributions can then seem to lose their significance.
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      Mar 23 2013: When I first met my husband, he was supporting a cause with both his time and his money. When we married, it was time to have our charitables meeting to merge them into one that suited both of us.

      The first thing I did was to run his charities through http://charitynavigator.org to get information that would lead me to financial statements. What I found was SHOCKING. His favorite organization spent most of its funds by channeling it to other sub charities it supported. Those sub-charities funneled their money up and down a chain of charities. They were allowed to include this channeling of money up and down chains as legitimate charity as opposed to overhead, even though, by the time the snarl of inter-related charities was untangled, most of the money was spent on overhead. It was nothing more than a jobs program hiding behind a lie - though some of the money in each charity went to its announced cause, it was minimal. It was a very nasty little closed circle. Some of the charities were even housed in the same building. They all had low to moderate overhead, but only because they were deceiving their volunteers.

      That's when I realized that I had been dead wrong in my thinking about charities and why I now understand that Dan Pallotta is dead wrong in his thinking about charity. When I read the literature put out by my husband's favorite charity, I was impressed. But we haven't given them a dime or a minute since we looked as far into the charities' financial statements as we were allowed to.

      Now I support those causes that really stand for what I want to support. And that includes the idea of volunteerism among dedicated people who are interested in making a difference. If I want to support a jobs program, then I will look at those ventures advertising themselves as jobs programs - not major charities who say one thing while doing another.
  • Mar 22 2013: A good start is to share this talk. I hope TED will include share button for Google+ so I can share it there with others =)
  • Mar 28 2013: What evaluation methods are best practices?
    Caroline, I recommend you research easy ways for non-profits to use quantitative technologies for qualitative feedback. I doubt non-profits have difficulty coming up with good survey questions but I have a strong feeling they do not have the skills, time, or money to analyze the data effectively, such as finding correlations. Unfortunately, the local college statistics departments do not advertise their expertise, nor market/sell their profession very well.
    I have read about "clicker" response systems used during focus groups that maximize feedback and information sharing. If the technology were made affordable and the math a matter of plugging in the variables then I think more non-profits would invest in it.
  • Mar 26 2013: Hopefully you live in a state that has a state wide non-profit association. We have app. 37 states that do and I'm sure New York has one. They should be able to provide your non-profit with outcome measurements of the non-profits in your community. If you don't get satisfaction with your state organization try the National Council of Non-Profits in Washington, DC. They are a great group of people that will work with you toward your goal.
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    Mar 24 2013: Great! Just what I want. Send your squillions to me NOW - no matter how few millions you have, every little counts. My dreams are so wonderfully enormous that it's hard to know where to start. A free playstation for everyone. Eliminating pain. No more death. 24/7 educational broadcasts from loudspeakers on every street corner. Hollowing out secret volcanoes isn't cheap, but you know it's a big goal.

    Big fund-raising is a massive industry that serves itself. Efficiency is everything, without it focus gets lost and the needy get the left-overs.
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    Mar 23 2013: First of all, Dan Pallotta is lobbying for an idea that makes little sense to a vast majority, though it might make sense to some who make charitable contributions for the purpose of getting tax credits.

    Too many charities are nothing more than jobs programs. When I make a charitable contribution, I do so because of a specific cause that I believe in. Jobs for staff, lobbyists like Dan Pallotta, and commissioned telemarketers and the like, are not part of any cause that I believe in. Dan Pallotta was lobbying for a raise in his own pay, using TED as its platform - while speaking to those wealthy individuals and corporate leaders who prefer tax credits over actual charitable works.

    Dan Pallotta is dead wrong about the way HE thinks about charity.
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      Mar 23 2013: Well, whether we fully agree with Mr. Pallotta's idea or not, I think the greater point that I see here is that judging a nonprofit's efficacy by the size of their overhead costs is all wrong. I think many would like the conversation to turn towards measuring the real impact of programs from a monitoring and evaluation perspective vs. relying on overhead to program ratios to tell us a story of impact. Not to mention that different organizations need to have different cost structures in place in order to achieve their particular mission. I think we'll always look to nonprofits to be financially accountable and transparent, and I believe that is very important for the overall health of the sector, but I do think regardless of how we feel about Mr. Pallotta's argument, it's important to note that he has opened up an important discussion about examining the way we rate nonprofits and think about creating real impact.
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        Mar 23 2013: I don't see the importance of his discussion in so far as it relates to discarding cost structure as a measure of a charity's worthiness. In fact, money itself shouldn't be the focus of charity at all. Money is the problem, not the solution.
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        Mar 23 2013: CauseSMART doesn't seem to have a web site. Though I do find a "LinkedIn" listing for you and that tells me about CauseSMART, that is described as a boutique strategic communications consulting firm helping mission-driven organizations, social entrepreneurs and other organizations activate their vision, ideas and creativity into powerful brands that inspire and connect.

        Of course you want me to disregard how much a charity pays you for your consulting services. If I were in your shoes, I'd want it too.