Making Assessments

December 1, 2004       Todd Cohen      

A new online tool aims to help nonprofit professionals assess and improve their leadership skills. Developed by Centerpoint for Leaders and focusing on the skills of individuals working for nonprofits, the new tool builds on other online resources the Washington, D.C., nonprofit has developed to improve organizational effectiveness and performance.

“If we can enhance the capacity of the individuals within organizations and build their leadership strengths, we can increase the capacity of the organization and the capacity of the nonprofit sector,” said Sandra Trice Gray, Centerpoint’s president and CEO.

Centerpoint was formed in 2000 as a spin-off of Independent Sector, a nonprofit trade group in Washington, D.C., that had decided to focus more attention on advocacy. Survey research that led to that new focus also found that nonprofit professionals wanted a “one-stop” source of practical applications and ideas, and networking with peers, to help improve their leadership skills, said Gray, a 17-year veteran of Independent Sector who was its vice president for leadership.

“Leaders feel very isolated and many don’t have access to affordable leadership-development resources,” she said.

In addition to holding workshops and retreats, which generate roughly one-third of its $250,000 annual budget, Centerpoint offers free resources at centerpointforleaders.org, including a “virtual learning community,” “peer learning” and a “leadership toolkit.”

The learning community, for example, features a catalog of multidisciplinary resources on leadership, including publications, bibliographies and links to materials, training and fellowship programs on topics such as coaching, assessment and board-leadership development.

Each quarter, the learning community also publishes a special online feature on topics such as knowledge-management that includes a synopsis and tutorial on the issue, and links to related resources. The peer-learning resource features message boards, chat rooms, models, promising practices and links to materials on topics such as accountability.

And the leadership toolkit features tools designed to help a nonprofit assess and improve its organizational effectiveness and performance, including annotated bibliographies.

Visitors to the site can take an online survey, and receive an email showing their score and recommending steps to make their organization more effective, such as tying each aspect of the organization to its mission.

Visitors also can use the site to measure and improve organizational performance in a broad range of issues, including ethics and accountability; mission statement; monitoring external conditions; planning, leadership and management; examining the organization’s structure and how it meshes with its goals; human-resources management; internal and external communications; performance evaluation; and information technology.

The new tool, which costs $375 and is designed to track change in leadership behavior, features online courses and workplace mentors and observers. Nonprofit professionals initially complete an online assessment to determine which aspects of leadership they need to work on through the curriculum, which they can pursue at any time and at their own pace, Gray said.

Based on the results of the assessment, the nonprofit professional is directed to courses contained in 58 modules that can be downloaded and are organized by categories such as “effective personal relationships,” “develop staff and volunteers,” “advocacy,” and “focus on benefactors and stakeholders.”

Participants who take the program with staff, board members or volunteers at their nonprofit serving as mentor and observers can earn a Certified Executive Leader, or CEL, certification. Critical modules of the new tool that typically are not included in leadership programs, Gray said, focus on advocacy and the “inner work of leadership.”

The advocacy module, she said, “helps people become stronger advocates for what’s needed within their organization, their community and for those who do not have a voice.”

The toughest part of leadership can be “self-development,” she said. “It takes time to be reflective and build the capacity to minimize stress and to walk through challenges and to be visionary and to help you get the help you need from whatever sources to achieve the goals,” she said. “For one to develop optimally as a leader, one needs to work on this inner component.”

Centerpoint also is considering both becoming a membership organization, with a nominal fee and discounts on its services, and launching a “civil society fellows program” that would that would train people from business, government and nonprofits in local communities to work together on local issues.

The program, which would not begin before 2006 and still is seeking funding, would consist of four three-day weekend sessions a year over two years for up to three teams of three people each from each sector in a single community.

Donor wealth matching

A philanthropic advisory service has been launched to match donors with nonprofits that share their values. SmartGiving, at smartgiving.com, aims to help donors focus their giving by helping them write a mission statement and spell out their philanthropic values.

Donors can provide that information by working directly with Phyllis Freedman, founder of SmartGiving and a veteran fundraiser and consultant.

In the first quarter of 2005, she said, donors will be able to develop their mission and value information online. SmartGiving, in turn, will help donors find nonprofits in sync with their philanthropic goals.

Nonprofits also may submit information about their organizations and impact at the SmartGiving Web site.

Donors initially will pay an hourly fee for a personal consultation, with the total fee not likely to exceed $2,000, said Freedman, former general manager of the fundraising and membership services group for Epsilon, a Boston-based database marketing firm. She also headed direct response fundraising for Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Once the service is available online, donors can subscribe for $9.95 a month, or pay $9.95 each time they use the site. Nonprofits that register at the site by the end of this year will have free access to market research SmartGiving is conducting on donors.

NTEN chief leaves

The Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN), a San Francisco-based group that works to help nonprofits use technology more effectively, is losing its executive director.

Ed Batista is stepping down at the end of the year after four years as the organization’s first executive director to pursue other work, probably in the nonprofit sector.

Under Batista, NTEN has enlisted more than 650 dues-paying members, signed up more than 1,100 subscribers for its bi-weekly email newsletter and spawned informal nonprofit technology social-networking groups in 17 communities throughout that U.S. that have attracted more than 1,400 subscribers.

In addition to continued growth among its core constituencies of tech consultants, assistance providers and vendors, a big challenge for the organization is to reach out to managers and tech staff at nonprofits, and help them think about the “larger strategic goals of how to use technology to get their message into the community, reach advocates and volunteers, and raise money more effectively,” Batista said. “So many nonprofits still are not aware these resources exist to help do their job more effectively.”

Project Alchemy closes

Citing a lack of support from funders, Project Alchemy, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provided tech assistance to social-justice organizations and organizers in the Pacific Northwest has shut down.

“We did not successfully gain institutional recognition,” said Samantha Moscheck, who served as the organization’s program manager.

Cambrea Ezell, chair of Project Alchemy’s board, said the region lacks a “significant funding stream dedicated to capacity building for social justice.”

Funders thus “must choose between critical issues and capacity-building goals,” she said in a written statement. “Our work was not a priority for funders.”

Moscheck and her husband, Michael, have formed DigitalAid, a limited liability company that aims to carry on the work of Project Alchemy and will serve nonprofits and small businesses.

Todd Cohen is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, an online newspaper at www.philanthropyjournal.org. He can be reached at tcohen@ajf.org