Research Initiatives: Powell

Walter W. Powell

Walter W Powell

Stanford Project on the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector (SPEN)

funded by Center on Social Innovation, Graduate School of Business, W.W. Powell, PI.

The "SPEN Landscape Report (downloadable PDF)" from the Stanford Project on the Evolution of Nonprofits is intended to provide baseline knowledge to enhance current understanding of the San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit sector and to inform decision making within and about the sector. It provides a comprehensive overview of the regional nonprofit economy in the Bay Area and contrast the region with the nation as a whole. Our focus on the management of charitable organizations should help nonprofit leaders and others understand the relative position of their organizations and support efforts to improve the standing of the sector more generally. (Denise L. Gammal, Caroline Simard, Hokyu Hwang, Walter W. Powell, 2005)



Metrics and Evaluation in the Nonprofit Sector

We live in an age of metrics. These benchmarks are important because what organizations measure serves to focus their attention (Colyvas and Powell 2009). Individuals from nonprofit, for-profit and governmental sectors have embraced evaluation and measurement as a solution to the accountability challenges of the social sector and have begun to develop various metrics of non-profit performance (Hwang and Powell, 2009). Our research looks at the spread and utilization of evaluation tools in and for the nonprofit and international NGO communities. With the growing mandated use of various forms of accountability, transparency and evaluation, we seek to understand who is responsible for producing or creating different evaluation frameworks and metrics, who is responsible for proselytizing or carrying them to different places, and who is adopting or consuming them.

The first phase of the project aims to understand the broad field of nonprofit evaluation. Specifically, our goal is to identify the various participants that shape the field, and who among them are creating or importing forms of evaluation, and how central they are to the field. Using a web crawler methodology, we have identified one thousand unique URLs that arguably constitute the most influential bodies in this field. The field consists of nonprofit organizations, for-profit corporations, government bodies, and numerous other non-organizational forms, such as Web 2.0 media, conferences, and affinity groups.

In the second phase, we identify the various types of evaluation tools and metrics, and track both the creators and carriers. Research on the field of organizational and non-organizational forms participating in metrics and evaluation for the nonprofit sector creates a baseline knowledge of existing practices, and how they change over time, as well as how the specific rise of new organizational forms around metrics and measurement have influenced practice.

In the third phase of the project, we examine which evaluation tools are most widely adopted by nonprofit organizations, and under what conditions those are adopted (or resisted). In the same way that the spread of entrepreneurial practices within universities in the United States has been met with mixed success, due to the fact that they fail to capture the underlying structure of contemporary scientific work, we hypothesize that the spread of monitoring and evaluation frameworks across the nonprofit sector will be uneven and met with a combination of superficial embrace, stubborn resistance, and occasional re-purposing. Because nonprofit organizations are typically resource dependent, they are especially reliant upon legitimizing processes to inform and assure their donor base. Two observations follow: greater professionalization of evaluation frameworks and the need to access a broader donor base with these frameworks presents potential challenges in that as external evaluations become a) more professional and/or b) more generic, they may fail to accurately value the organization’s projects, programs and processes. How are organizations responding to this challenge?

This third phase of the project involves interviews with national and international nonprofit organizations. Our goal is to understand not only the source, but also the reach of evaluation, as well as its consequences and proliferation. Interviews have been already conducted in Tanzania and South Africa, exploring our ideas about the spread of metrics and evaluation in developing countries.

Our goal is to document the sources and types of nonprofit evaluation, and explain how the proliferation of evaluation is reshaping organizational behavior and its broader social impacts in the United States and internationally.

Click the arrows below to view slides from a recent presentation of this work on August 7, 2012 at the Academy of Management in Boston.



Click the arrows below to view slides from a presentation of this work at the EGOs Colloquium in Helsinki, Finland, July 5-7, 2012.