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ND panel on social impact: Big numbers aren’t enough

by Ed Cohen

February 6, 2013


Today’s foundations and other philanthropic organizations want to see the “social return” on their “investment” in a nonprofit’s efforts. But simply generating big numbers isn’t enough, two experienced leaders of nonprofits cautioned in a program at the University of Notre Dame.

Angela Smith Cobb, who leads Chicago’s New Options Project, which aims to help school dropouts, said nonprofits need to focus on measurements that illustrate their impact.

“It’s not the number of people we saw or called but the impact – did it matter?” she said of New Options, an initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Smith Cobb’s comments came during a panel discussion on “Measuring and Getting Results in Non-Profits,” part of Notre Dame’s annual Making a Living Making a Difference Series of events. The discussion took place Jan. 29, 2013, at the University’s Mendoza College of Business and attracted an audience that included leaders of local nonprofits. The discussion was moderated by Marc Hardy, the director of Notre Dame Nonprofit Executive Education.

The presence of imitators is another way to show the effectiveness of an organization, said the other speaker on the panel, Daniel Morrison, founder and CEO of the online fundraising platform Citizen Effect. Morrison said his organization’s goal is not to become “the Walmart” of a social cause, dominating the field and eliminating organizations with similar goals.  

“We want to be a virus, have people steal the idea from us, replicate it,” he said. In that way, outside organizations can see that the approach works and there is room for growth, he said.

Smith Cobb said organizations need to be on the lookout for stories, not just numbers, to illustrate their success. She said the best advice she ever received about preparing for a media interview was to have one story and one powerful measurement ready to illustrate every point.

She also said that when faced with justifying their organization’s existence, leaders of nonprofits need to be sure they don’t lose sight of their mission. “Are you concerned with solving the (social) problem or preserving your institution?” she asked.

Both Smith Cobb and Morrison are Notre Dame alumni. Smith Cobb earned a bachelor’s in accounting in 1993. She led diversity and philanthropic efforts while working for Deloitte and later at Allstate, Monster.com and ATHENA International, a nonprofit focused on women’s leadership development. She served as chief diversity officer for Teach for America before accepting her current position as director of Return on Inspiration Labs, a subsidiary of business incubator ROI Ventures.

Morrison graduated from Notre Dame in 1995 with a degree in history.  He worked for the brand and marketing strategy firm Prophet and consultancy firm Kuczmarski & Associates before founding Citizen Effect, which connects private individuals dedicated to community building with critical projects in 15 countries.

The Making a Living Making a Difference Series is sponsored by the Notre Dame Career Center, the Center for Social Concerns, the Higgins Labor Institute, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the Notre Dame Department of Political Science, the Notre Dame Law School, the Master of Nonprofit Administration Program and the Notre Dame MBA.

The next event in the series will be a talk by Joe Bozich, founder, CEO and chairman of Knights Apparel, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, in the auditorium of Geddes Hall on the Notre Dame campus. Knights Apparel is a major supplier of collegiate clothing and is accredited by the Fair Labor Association.

The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Those interested in attending should register online or call Joe Bozich at (574) 631-3314.