Trust-based philanthropy and the pitfalls of quantitative metrics in effective disaster philanthropy

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The principles of trust-based philanthropy and qualitative evaluations are nothing new. These concepts have been discussed, disseminated, and, in some instances, have advanced into the realm of practical implementation.

Unfortunately, a prevailing issue persists in the form of funders who continue to rely on statistical metrics to form presumptive judgments regarding the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations. As Chera Reid from the Center for Evaluation Innovation mentions in Trust-Based Philanthropy’s blog: “Industry standard, funder-driven evaluation tends to take a top-down, extractive approach to gathering and analyzing data, focusing on quantitative metrics and project-specific, short-term outcomes.”

When the standard approach to evaluation is taken, the impact is narrowly defined and time-delimited. A funder’s learning is thus limited to what is readily available to be measured. This has to change.

Implementing trust-based philanthropy prevents erosion of relationships

Trust-based philanthropy is built on the principle that donors and funders place trust in the expertise and judgment of nonprofits to address societal challenges. By imposing stringent quantitative metrics, the focus shifts from championing nonprofits to meet community needs to a mere compliance exercise. The burden of data collection and reporting can divert crucial resources and attention away from the actual recovery work, thus diminishing the effectiveness of philanthropic efforts.

Moreover, overemphasizing quantitative metrics may foster a transactional relationship between donors and nonprofits rather than a collaborative partnership. This shift can reduce the flexibility and creativity necessary to adapt to evolving disaster scenarios and foster innovative solutions to address emerging challenges.

Challenges faced by nonprofits

Communities recovering from disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies have diverse and evolving needs that cannot always be quantified using traditional metrics. Demanding rigid quantitative data can lead nonprofits to overlook crucial qualitative aspects of their interventions, such as the emotional well-being of survivors, community solidarity and supporting local leaders.

Requiring strict quantitative metrics pressures nonprofits to demonstrate quick and tangible results to satisfy donors’ expectations. As a result, organizations may be compelled to prioritize short-term projects with immediate outcomes, even if they are less effective or sustainable in the long run.

Key indicators of success

Effective disaster philanthropy requires a balance between accountability and trust. Educating your stakeholders and other funders about the benefits of trust-based philanthropy is paramount to changing disaster philanthropy. The true key indicators of success are the people and communities who can rebuild stronger when aided by the support they’ve received. It’s a long road, but funders can start by reforming their reporting requirements and taking a long-term, adaptable approach to grantmaking.

Advice for funders ready to change

As mentioned, these concepts are not new. However, some funders might be unsure how to move forward with implementing a more trust-based approach. To enhance the effectiveness of disaster philanthropy, donors and funders must adopt a more holistic approach that recognizes the importance of qualitative indicators of impact and the expertise of the organizations they are funding:

  1. Donors should trust nonprofit organizations to make decisions based on their expertise and on-the-ground knowledge. Allowing for flexibility in grant requirements and offering unrestricted funding can empower nonprofits to tailor their interventions based on changing circumstances.  Quantitative metrics, if necessary, should be complemented by qualitative assessments that capture the real-life experiences and stories of those impacted by disasters.
  2. Donors’ disaster relief efforts should focus on sustainable and lasting impact rather than merely achieving short-term targets. Recognizing the inherent complexities of disaster recovery and rebuilding processes, donors should be patient and allow nonprofits the time to implement effective solutions. This means providing opportunities for multi-year funding or renewing funding even if the full scope of data – qualitative and quantitative – isn’t available yet. Trust that the organization knows how to serve its people.
  3. Encourage collaboration among nonprofits, government agencies and local communities to foster a more comprehensive response to disasters. This approach ensures that resources are leveraged efficiently and that each organization plays to its strengths. A values-based approach helps to redistribute power, centers relationships and works for systemic equity.

At CDP, we try to lead by example. We know that this is something that takes time. We continue to challenge ourselves to be an equitable partner and operationalize a participant mindset.

Among the latest steps we’ve taken include simplifying our internal grantmaking practices (e.g., due diligence, application, reporting processes, etc.) to reduce the burden on grantee partners, publishing information about our process for accountability and transparency, and elevating and amplifying local voices and stories through our impact stories and webinars.

It is time for all philanthropy to take action to ensure that disaster recovery is evaluated beyond numbers and is measured instead by the power of human connection and the strength of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities.

If you’re ready to make a change, reach out to learn how we can help you improve your strategy.