We’re awash in a terrifying survey culture. You can’t so much as buy a pack of gum anymore without being assaulted with email and phone requests to “take a five-minute survey to help improve the gum chewing experience.” At least in the better of these survey pitches, you the consumer are cast as the hero of the story. Sure, your wife may not listen to you anymore, but at Safeway, your opinion counts! Let your voice be heard. You, and only you, can change your grocery store for the better by giving Todd the cashier a paltry 4 out of 10! Of course, the irony is that your opinion only really matters to the company if it fits neatly into their pre-formed 12 question prompt and ubiquitous 10-point scale.
(Someone should write a short story where Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man goes to a modern day grocery store and tries to use a coupon at one of those self-checkout counters, before being suffocated by the world’s longest receipt. YOU HAVE SAVED $45.62 THIS YEAR. TAKE OUR SURVEY NOW TO BE ENTERED TO WIN A CHICAGO BEARS THEMED TOASTER. But I digress.)
For all of the existential angst that consumer surveys give me, at least their ostensible purpose is to actually gather information about how people feel about a product or service, and make adjustments based on that information. Not so with many other polls, studies, and opinion surveys.
In the nonprofit world, here’s one that really irks me: the “impact” question. Here’s one example in an otherwise kind of neat Blackbaud infographic. One of the big, highlighted findings is that 57% of millennials say that they “want to see the impact of their donation.” Another survey found that 78% of millennial donors (see a pattern here?) categorize themselves as very or somewhat likely to stop donating if they didn’t know how the organization was making an impact.
These may seem like innocuous findings, but there’s actually a great deal of ideology baked into these questions. To understand how, let us consider another question: do you like mozzarella cheese? I know I do. And if you asked that question to 100 people, you might find 80 or even 90 people who agree. Then let us suppose that you ask, “would you continue to buy dairy products from a company if you couldn’t be sure whether its mozzarella cheese was moldy?” The horror! No, the survey respondents would say with near unanimity.
And yet no self-respecting dairy executive is going to see those survey results and declare that henceforth each and every product must contain the finest mozzarella cheese. It is obvious, in the cheese example, that the surveyor was for whatever reason unduly fixated on mozzarella and has cleverly designed the questions to produce a certain result. Those 90% who said they like mozzarella (at least in the abstract) may be buying exclusively cheddar jack for all we really know. And of course when you suggest that a cheese company may or may not be deficient in some aspect of their operations, survey takers will indicate that they’re worried.
If we felt like it, or had ideological or financial motivations to do so, we could easily produce similar survey results while asking about camembert or manchego or even the lowly Kraft slice. The results would be equally meaningless.
So, I’d like to make a radical suggestion: the hype in the non-profit sphere about “impact” and the supposed demand for it is largely fictional.
Oh sure, many foundations will continue to make a big bluster about impact in their grant-making process. And we’ll all likely continue to see surveys and studies touting the importance of “impact.” But there just isn’t enough evidence for the impact of impact, if you will.
When you look at the actions that donors take, as opposed to their subjective reactions to terms like “impact,” you find that almost none of them take actions that one would expect an “impact”-conscious donor to make. About two thirds of donors to nonprofits do no research whatsoever before they give a gift. None. Of the third that do, most are simply checking to make sure that the organization isn’t an outright fraud. The percentage of nonprofit donors who actually take the time to research multiple organizations before choosing which one to support? According to a 2010 study, it’s about 3%. The 2015 version of the same study now claims that figure is up to a whopping 9%.
So here’s the real question for the nonprofit sector, which will have to be answered in another column: if it isn’t driven by donor demand, why is demonstrating “impact” so popular? Who is really benefiting from this trend? Why the obsession with mozzarella?