Evaluating Nonprofits – Tips from Site Visits


N.E.W. Fund grantees from 2005.

We’re always in the giving season at Coastal Community Foundation, but with two months left to 2015, many individuals and families are now preparing to donate generous dollars to nonprofits all across the Lowcountry. But after deciding which cause to support, how can donors to know which nonprofit(s) to give to? How can they evaluate which will be effective stewards of their dollars to create change?
Below are some of the most important areas we focus on during site visits to evaluate just that. Use them, share them and apply them to your charitable giving this season.
Every nonprofit has a mission, and sticking to it is a strong indicator of organizational focus, responsibility and ability to create lasting change. “Mission drift” may manifest itself in nonprofits looking for programs that fit the dollars – instead of the other way around. Nonprofits use their mission to guide decision making and focus impact, so a clear one is a must.
Human capital is every nonprofit’s most important resource. This includes everyone from staff to board members and other volunteers. Are people receiving relevant training to run programs, use software to increase efficiency or work with clients? Do key staff receive leadership development?
These pieces are evidence of an organization’s commitment to its people, but just as important are the people’s commitment to the organization. One important indicator here is board giving – do all members contribute at an appropriate financial level to the organization? Another is leadership – are the Executive Director, upper management and Board members trained for their role? Do they have the right experience to equip them to excel in their positions? These are just some of many ways to measure people’s commitment to the organization – and vice versa.
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are critical to the long-term health of any organization, especially purpose-driven ones like nonprofits. While successful DEI might vary across programs and issues, all nonprofits can strive towards more equitable and inclusive internal environments with staff, board and volunteers.
Diverse perspectives participating in decision making help create stronger and more equitable outcomes. It is especially key to include communities served in internal decision making. It speaks volumes when nonprofits consult their clients on programs – even more so when they bring those same community members into the fold as staff and/or board members.
Is the organization planning for the future financially? Do they have a diversified revenue stream? Are they reaching out to current and potential donors online? All of these questions address an organization’s long-term sustainability. Nonprofits planning for the future, and all of the changes that entails, will be ready to manage your contributions responsibly.
Programmatic Success
Measuring outcomes quantitatively. Anecdotes of success. Measuring what matters is different for every nonprofit, but every nonprofit should know that measurement and be able to readily share it with you. Different organizations might be a different points in their life cycle, so the level of analysis might differ across organizations. However, the important thing is to see the nonprofit making strides towards more and more rigorous evaluation techniques that reach the heart of what matters for their mission.
Is the nonprofit in question collaborating with their peers? Working together gives nonprofits a more holistic perspective about the communities they serve. It helps them advocate for their cause, think of new ideas and strengthen community leadership. Perhaps most importantly, it speaks to an organization’s commitment to the cause – not just themselves.
Online Tools
Finally, there are a plethora of online tools available to access basic information about all nonprofits, especially financial details. Guidestar is one very comprehensive database, and IRS Select Check is a simple tool to determine an organization’s nonprofit status. For South Carolina, make sure they are in good standing with the S.C. Secretary of State as well.
Ultimately, one of the most effective ways to decide which nonprofits to support is to build relationships with them. In doing so, you can ask all of your questions and truly understand where they need your support.
It’s always giving season at Coastal Community Foundation – give us a call at (843) 723-3635 for questions about local nonprofits and advice on how to meet your philanthropic goals.

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