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Bringing Method to the Madness

By Kris Helé

My college basketball brackets have busted. I’m disgusted and embarrassed. Why is it that people who select their brackets on the basis of uniform colors or mascots tend to do just as well or better than those who spend hours poring over stats or those who have at least a basic understanding of sports?

“They call it March Madness for a reason,” my friend tells me. This further agitates my analytical mind, awash in anxiety and grief over the unpredictability of it all.

As I lamented my risky choice for the champion (c’mon Baylor, what happened?), I got to thinking about March Madness as a metaphor for the nonprofit sector and the choices faced by philanthropy in placing their investments. Sometimes the big name teams succeed, just as you thought they would (Kentucky is on its way). Sometimes the underdogs, the teams that make you ask, “Is that even a college?”–come out on top (congrats on your win, Murray State). Sometimes last year’s high performer is this year’s disappointment (better luck next time, UConn).

In the nonprofit sector, the stakes are much higher and there are far more than 68 entities vying for the resources of any given funder. How can nonprofits increase their value and effectiveness? Likewise, how can foundations make smarter bets on nonprofits? Investing in evaluation is a good start. When evaluation provides high quality data to inform change and improvement, nonprofits are further along their path to success, and foundations are able to make more effective investments.

Evaluation isn’t without its flaws, and it can’t predict the future, but it certainly brings method to the madness.