Finding—and Using—the Right Tool for the Job: A Landscape Scan of Assessment Tools

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Finding—and Using—the Right Tool for the Job: A Landscape Scan of Assessment Tools
By Prithi Trivedi, Program Fellow, and Jennifer Wei, Organizational Effectiveness Officer, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Nonprofits come in many shapes and sizes. They focus on different issues, and work in different geographies. But across the board, in order to navigate organizational challenges and adapt to changing contexts, nonprofits need, first, to be able to gauge organizational health. This can prepare them to build the internal capacity needed to tackle the issues they may face, and to be as effective as possible. But what is the best way to assess the health of a nonprofit—what tools exist, and how are they best used?

This is what the Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group were curious to discover, so we commissioned a landscape scan of organizational assessment tools to learn about which tools exist and how they can help both funders and nonprofits better understand a nonprofit’s health and capacity needs. Organizational assessment tools can help nonprofits by offering frameworks to assess key areas of capacity—including strategic focus, leadership, governance, human resource capacity, financial and fundraising structure, and learning and evaluation ability.

We worked with Informing Change, a consulting firm in Berkeley, California, who produced a database of 91 comprehensive organizational assessment tools, checklists, and guides, as well as an accompanying memo based on interviews with funders and nonprofits.  There were many rich findings from the scan, but a few stood out to us: 

  • Organizational assessment tools can help an organization identify shared concerns, facilitate reflection, and provide a common language for dialogue and decision-making. Tools can prompt nonprofits to consider areas for improvement they may not have thought of before, and the process can facilitate important conversations among leadership, board, and staff to help shape resulting priorities.  
  • There are many different organizational assessment tools. No one tool rises to the top as best, but the most highly regarded tools have been customized or adapted to a specific context for a field or type of organization. 
  • The process in which a tool is used is critical—and can be even more important than the tool itself.  Tools work best in a facilitated, well-managed, and intentional process.

As we learned more about these tools, we were surprised by the inconsistent and often limited consideration of two topics important in the sector: diversity, equity and inclusion, and beneficiary or constituent voice.  Given the current energy in the philanthropic sector around these issues, these strike us as areas which should be prioritized for both creators and users of tools moving forward.   

Implications for funders and nonprofit organizations

We hope that funders are able to use these findings to better assess and support grantee organizational needs. We believe it’s critical for funders to provide support to help strengthen nonprofit organizational heath, but also recognize that it can be hard to do so—and hope this set of tools can help. That said, our findings indicate that it is better to have nonprofits conduct assessments on their own and not have funders be involved (and particularly not have assessment be a part of grantmaking decisions); this enables nonprofits to have thoughtful, candid, and unbiased discussions and reflections of their organizations’ needs.

For nonprofits, we hope that these tools are useful in better understanding organizational health and capacity. And, there are several things that can make using a tool more effective. First, it is important to be prepared for an organizational assessment by making the time and mind space available to reflect, discuss, learn, adapt, and make changes.  An assessment can be especially beneficial at certain stages of development, such as embarking on a new strategic plan, having new leadership in place, or planning for growth.  Second, the findings show that to make the most use out of a tool, it is critical to make sure to have the right people participate in the process, pick a tool that uses relevant language, and choose a tool that aligns in terms of organizational budget and staff size. Finally, nonprofits in the study also agree that it is best for someone to lead and facilitate the process, especially if there are differing opinions across leadership and alignment is needed to make decisions and move forward.

How we are using findings internally at the Hewlett Foundation

At the Hewlett Foundation, we support grantee capacity in a variety of ways, including through our Organizational Effectiveness (OE) Program, which offers targeted grants that help our grantees focus on capacity-building needs such as strategic planning, leadership development, and diversity, equity and inclusion work. We plan to use the findings of this scan to improve our own assessment of nonprofit health; specifically, we hope the tools will allow us to better understand grantee needs, promote more candid conversations between our own program officers and grantees about capacity, and better ensure grantees are ready to embark on a capacity-building project. As we found in our OE evaluation, this last reason – grantee readiness – is especially important to grantee capacity-building success.  By being ready for change and committed to organizational strengthening, nonprofits can effectively use organizational assessment to build internal consensus and prioritize the most important capacity-building needs.


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