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A Question For All Nonprofits: Do You Know If You’re Effective?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Brittany Keegan
March 2, 2019

Those of us working in the nonprofit sector often have a few questions that linger in the back of our minds. We see the work that our organization does, and we usually believe that the work we’re doing is good. But is it enough? Is it truly helping people and making a difference? Does what we’re doing matter? In other words, is our work effective? And how would we know?

The multiple constituency approach to organizational effectiveness is one way to evaluate organizational effectiveness. This approach places high value on the perspectives of stakeholders and states that an organization is effective if and when the constituents, or stakeholders, feel that that the organization is effective. It asks, “Who wants what?” and, “How important is it for stakeholder demands to be satisfied?” It also assumes that an organization’s goal should be to provide clients with the services they want rather than with the services the nonprofit wants to provide or thinks that it should provide. Because each stakeholder will likely have a different perspective regarding what they want, what effectiveness means, and if the nonprofit is effectively addressing his or her needs, multiple considerations such as nonprofit responsiveness to client needs should also be taken into consideration.

Although the multiple constituency approach is frequently discussed in the literature, it is less often applied in practice. In my recently completed dissertation, which examined the role of nonprofits in promoting the socioeconomic integration of refugees, I hoped to change that. To do so, I interviewed 30 nonprofit service providers (15 supervisors and 15 at the street level) as well as 30 refugees who received services from nonprofits. Among other things, I used the multiple constituency approach when exploring how nonprofits work to meet refugee needs by seeking the viewpoints of various actors.

One of my research questions asked, “How do refugees, staff, and volunteers involved with nonprofits perceive and define the effectiveness of services provided?” and participants each had differing perspectives as to how nonprofit effectiveness could be described. Refugee participants tended to define nonprofit effectiveness from a client-focused perspective, i.e. that a nonprofit could be defined as effective if it was able to successfully meet refugee needs. This primarily included promoting self-sufficiency (e.g. by helping refugees learn English and find employment) and creating feelings of community among the refugee population. Refugees said that they wanted to feel included, and to feel like they were able to live positively and productively within their new community. However, some of my other research questions showed that some of the needs that the refugees described where not being met; a primary example is language-learning, as the majority of refugee participants stated that they wished they had more opportunities to learn English. Thus, the nonprofits from which they received services were not always effective in helping them integrate

When I asked nonprofit supervisors and those at the street level how they would define effectiveness, their responses were primarily from an organizational standpoint, with a particular focus on meeting the nonprofit’s mission. In other words, a nonprofit could be considered effective if their mission and goals were met. This raised another question: If clients measure effectiveness by the extent to which they are helped, and if nonprofits measure effectiveness using their mission statement, are nonprofit statements aligned with client needs?

In a review of the nonprofit mission statements, I found that they tended to be fairly vague. Because refugees tended to offer more specific suggestions as to what nonprofit effectiveness meant (e.g. promoting self-sufficiency, helping them find jobs, helping them learn English, etc.), it seems that the best way to improve mission statements would be to integrate refugee definitions of effectiveness. To illustrate: Rather than having a mission statement along the lines of, “To help refugees adapt to their new community” as I often saw, a nonprofit could include specific steps and instead say, “To help refugees adapt to their new community through employment, housing and language-learning.” This would also allow refugees in need of services, along with those assisting them, to better identify what services an individual nonprofit could provide.

The perspectives of both the refugee clients and nonprofit service providers are valuable, and must be considered as nonprofits work to evaluate the extent to which they are or are not effective. However, I would argue that the most important perspectives are those of the refugee clients. While my dissertation looked specifically at refugee populations, the sentiment can certainly be applied to other populations as well.

Our clients know their needs better than anyone, and those of us working with nonprofits must make an effort to solicit their opinions and truly listen to what they say. By amplifying and valuing client voices as we make decisions related to service delivery, we can help ensure that we’re providing them with effective services. While there is always room for improvement, we might be able to rest a little easier as some of those lingering questions are answered. We can rest easier as we know that, at least for some clients, we really are making a difference.


Author: Brittany Keegan received her Ph.D. in December 2018, with her dissertation examining the roles of nonprofit organizations in promoting the socioeconomic integration of refugees. She now works at the VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy. She was named as one of Richmond, VA’s Top 40 Under 40 by Style Weekly in 2018 and has served as the chair of the statewide refugee mental health summit for the past two years. Research interests include nonprofit organizations, gender-based violence, and refugee policy.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BritKeegan

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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