Nonprofits fill an important societal role, addressing multifaceted social issues that are large in scale and impervious to change. To provide high-quality, impactful, and effective services, organizations face the challenge of presenting evidence of client impact to avoid losing critical financial support. Accountability demands made by funders primarily focus on short-term client outcomes and constrain agency efforts to address underlying complex social issues. The difficulty is finding a balance between accountability and transparency to funders while meeting the needs of clients and providing services that facilitate positive social change in alignment with the agency's mission.
The expectations for metrics may also perpetuate outcome expectations based on privileged culture, rooted in false narratives, which minimize systematic structures perpetuating forms of oppression. The metrics may reinforce the idea that marginalized populations must conform to these expectations if they are to be viewed as successful. The research question guiding this qualitative study was: What are the perceptions of administrators and staff members within nonprofit organizations regarding the influence of funder-mandated performance metrics on service provision?
This study utilized a constructivist grounded theory approach and included 16 direct service providers and administrators from eight nonprofit organizations located in one major Midwestern metropolitan city in the U.S. A purposive selective sampling method was utilized for recruitment, and semi-structured interviews were conducted. Data analysis was conducted via Charmaz’s constructivist grounded theory approach, consisting of three rounds of coding. Initial coding included line-by-line coding, focusing on conceptual analysis. Focused coding consisted of an assessment of initial codes to determine the conceptual strength. Theoretical coding conceptualized how the substantive codes related to one other as hypotheses to be later integrated into theory. Constant comparison, peer debriefing, and member checking were employed to ensure a rigorous approach to data collection and analysis.
Findings identified three primary categories: clients, programs, and agencies. Each category includes themes that emerged from the data. This paper focuses on the emergent theory suggesting that funder-mandated metrics can unintentionally influence the definition of client success, imposing subjective social values and meaning on outcome expectations, while also failing to consider cultural nuances, as well as structural and historical factors in the metrics. Additionally, findings discussed the influence of metrics that can disproportionally subject clients to individual behavior change interventions, while minimizing systematic structures that potentially contribute to or perpetuate a client’s circumstances or lived experiences.
This study contributes to important conversations within the profession examining the connections between micro and macro practice when working with clients and communities. These findings are critical and timely, given the increasing need to examine what practices are privileged, what assumptions are normalized, culture-bound, and/or deemed “desirable”. It reflects how evaluative practices can contribute to oppressive practices, identifying a need to reconsider how metrics capture client impact and root causes. Lastly, as nonprofits continue to abide by current evaluation processes that focus the responsibility of change on the client, this study raises questions about the nonprofit system unintentionally absolving itself from societal responsibility to address social change.