A new Johns Hopkins University survey has revealed widespread innovation among the nation’s nonprofits, as well as efforts by those organizations to measure their programs’ effectiveness. The vast majority (82 percent) of responding organizations 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 nonprofit organizations in four key fields – children and family services, elderly housing and services, community and economic development, and the arts – with 417 organizations 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.”

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

Although innovation is widespread within the nonprofit sector, more than two-thirds of responding organizations 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 organizational missions or cause organizations to sidestep programs with hard-to-achieve outcomes, the great majority of nonprofits 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 nonprofits 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.

Recommendations from survey respondents for helping to overcome the remaining barriers to nonprofit 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 organizations in fashioning common evaluation tools (67 percent), and training for personnel in how to use these tools (63 percent).

The full report “Nonprofits, Innovation and Performance Measurement: Separating Fact from Fiction” is available online.

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