If you had to choose between an evaluator or a marketer

Earlier this week I asked the following question on Twitter

If you had to choose between an evaluator or a marketer for your #nonprofit org, which would you pick and why?

I had plenty of interest in the question, but only one answer. Ann Emery pointed to a 2010 study by the Innovation Network about the State of Evaluation in 2010. The salient point from the report that Ann pointed out is that in an online survey of over 800 non-profit organizations across the United States, “fundraising is #1 priority in nonprofits while evaluation is #9…”.

This statistic provides some support for the open secret that organizations prefer investing in marketing over evaluation, but it doesn’t answer the second part of my original question, why do organizations choose marketing over evaluation?

While not intentionally an answer to this question, a nonprofit I have been almost working with for the last year provides some insight. This organization is relatively young, small nonprofit that has found itself a media darling in certain circles. It plays lip service to a desire to evaluate its findings but insists that anyone who look at their numbers be properly vetted (read already a believer in this agency’s approach).

Evaluators are inquisitive, and skeptical, by nature. A hypothesis test assumes there is no effect, rejecting this assumption only in the face of convincing evidence. Evaluators do the same thing.

This organization (not-uniquely) starts from the standpoint that its impact is a given. In that mindset, evaluators can only disprove your asserted greatness. Thinking of it that way, I’m not sure I’d hire an evaluator either.

An investment in marketing however brings accolades from the press, photo ops with politicians and the adoration (and financial support) of the general public. So really a choice between marketing and evaluation is a choice between fame and fortune versus the possibility of uncovering that the project you have invested in for over half a decade doesn’t do what you thought it did.

In this way, choosing the marketing consultant is the only rational choice to make. Well, that is, if your organization’s logic model defines an ultimate goal of self aggrandizement. If instead your target population are the people your agencies aims to serve, and the impact theory defines causal linkages between your interventions and something other than coverage in the New York Times, then an evaluator might be an okay idea after all.

Consumer protections and false advertising

Corporations invest in evaluating their products in part because better products are more competitive in the market place, but given the indirect funding nature of nonprofits, where the service recipient is not the purchaser of services, this incentive falls apart.

However, corporations also evaluate their products as to not run afoul of the various consumer protection regulations placed on businesses, including laws against falsely advertising one’s products effects.

Imagine how different the sector would look if a similar standard were applied in the social sector. I have written before that evaluation brings truth in advertising to the social sector, but the real benefit would be to those we serve. The media story should be a secondary bi-product of a job well done. Instead, getting a good media story is the job, period.