Demonstrating Your Value, Scientifically

Man holding up papers

A National Public Radio news article this year showed a challenge that might sound familiar—showing funders that you’re worth the investment. The story reported on proposed threats to cut federal funding for afterschool programs for low-income children. (The U.S. House Appropriations Committee recently voted to continue the funding at a $191 million cut.)

Multiple Conflicting Claims

In the article, after-school program supporters pointed out various benefits such as:

  • Students having better attitudes toward school
  • Students doing better in school/better grades
  • Parents being able to work

Opponents talked about questionable or “negative” effects such as:

  • Lack of “proof” that it helps students do better in school
  • Some negative behavior impacts
  • “Not the federal government’s responsibility to manage after-school programs”

These disconnected views show why having good data isn’t enough. Even if both sides had reliable data to back up their claims, each side was focused on different things. To make effective decisions, funders need a more complete picture.

How the Scientific Method Can Benefit You

Based on my experience being involved in program evaluating for the past two decades, I predict that nonprofits will need to show their value more scientifically. Collecting data to track whether your programs are having the effects that you think will continue to be important. But you’ll also need to blend knowledge from multiple sources to build a better understanding, or “theory” for your program.

I don’t mean “theory” in the casual sense of “just a hunch” or speculation. In the scientific method, a theory refers to our best understanding of something based on the available data and facts. You develop your best theory, conduct studies to test that theory, then use your study results to improve your theory and strengthen your case.

A Tip for Making Your Case Scientifically

The figure below shows the start of a “map” to show the theory for after-school programs, based on the article. We diagram each claim, using one circle for each thing and arrows to show where more of one thing helps cause more of something else. That makes the various perspectives more clear, so you can more effectively demonstrate your value to funders and other stakeholders.

Making Your Case Scientifically

This map begs to be expanded. The question marks show where adding more information can increase our understanding of--and ability to solve--complex issues.

  • One stated effect of the programs was “better attitudes toward school.” More studies might show what those better attitudes lead to, such as whether better attitudes helps kids do better in school.
  • One source said that we lack proof that the programs help kids do better in school; another said grades improved. That tells us we need more information. We might investigate what about the schools, or what about how the specific afterschool programs, caused them to work better in some schools than others. That could show opportunities to enhance the program.
  • One circle--about it not being the federal government’s responsibility to manage school programs--is not connected to anything. That shows a claim that is not well-explained. We need more information to show the positive and negative effects of government managing after-school programs.
Bernadette Wright

BERNADETTE WRIGHT is founder of Meaningful Evidence, LLC. She helps nonprofits such as National Alliance for Caregiving and NMAC (formerly National Minority AIDS Council) to shape effective programs, demonstrate their value to funders, and influence policy, using research. She earned her PhD in public policy/program evaluation from the University of Maryland. Subscribe to her bi-weekly news and tips.