Nonprofit Growth Strategies: Why Research is Key


Nonprofit Growth Strategies: Why Research is Key

Posted March 27, 2014

Chris Masalsky is the Associate Director for Development at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay. He shares his thoughts aboutPresident Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” Campaign and explains why measuring results for a nonprofit growth is essential.

I rarely watch the Sunday morning political shows, but a few weekends ago I was drawn into “ABC This Week.”  The show highlighted President Obama’s announcement of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, to provide ladders of opportunity for young boys and men of color.

During the panel discussion, commentatorHeather MacDonald took the position that programs addressing the needs of at-risk youth America ignore the problem of family instability, and that the theme of the initiative should not be “how do we help these children” but “how do we rebuild these families.”  Mac Donald also recited several statistics (most of which appeared in an op-ed piece she wrote in 2012), including the finding that in 2009, 73% of black children were born to unwed mothers.

Mac Donald also stated that “we have been doing programs … with passion and concern for three decades, and they haven’t made much difference.” It’s this type of reasoning that drives home the importance of outcome measures for programs serving at-risk youth. Because while I would love to violently disagree with her, there’s not much hard evidence suggesting she’s incorrect.  We all believe in our hearts that social problems in America would be far more acute if not for the programs Mac Donald disdains, but how do we prove that we have, indeed, made a measurable, positive difference?

Great social programs – particularly mentoring programs, like Big Brothers Big Sisters– need to not only do great work, we need collect evidence that our work produces results and take accountability for outcomes.  Right now, we can tell you how many kids we serve, and how long we serve them for; we can also recount many, many stories of the tremendous impact that mentoring had on individual children’s lives. And we can see changes in these children that intuitively tell us we’re doing the right thing. But how many of these kids…

  • Graduated high school and went on to college?
  • Avoided incarceration?
  • Achieved economic self-sufficiency?

We can’t say for sure. And we certainly can’t answer the question that Mac Donald would surely ask us: “do the boys you serve grow into men who stay involved in the lives of their own children?”

Another panelist, Van Jones, made the point that while “dads have to do more, when there’s this many kids in trouble, we all have to do more.” I absolutely agree, and in the case of Big Brothers Big Sisters, this means more data collection, more measurement, more connections to long-term outcomes. When we can definitively prove the impact of mentoring , we can eliminate debate over how to direct our nation’s resources and focus these efforts on implementing effective programs.

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