While there is a unique excitement and joy that comes with every project that we do, working with certain clients over many years can be especially rewarding. Not only do we get to really know an organization during a lengthy working relationship, but we also get to see how they use the project work that we do for them. As we complete our 20th year of business, we are highlighting some of our clients, including many who have worked with us over a number of years. I have worked with the Colorado Nonprofit Association on a variety of projects over the past five years, so I was excited to hear more about the relationship between the Association and Corona. Renny Fagan, President and CEO of the Association, graciously agreed to speak with me about our work together.Continue reading
If you have walked through downtown Denver recently, you know that it is hard to miss the growing homeless population. Civic Center Park has become a meeting place for many in the homeless population—a place where they can gather to share stories, food, and cell phones. Each year, Denver conducts a “Point in Time” (PIT) survey that aims to count the number of people experiencing homelessness. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducts an annual Point-in-Time (PIT) survey to track the rate of homelessness across the nation. Individual cities are responsible for collecting the data, with assistance from Local Homeless Coalitions, and provide the data to HUD, as well as publish a local report. In Denver, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative oversees the PIT survey. The 2018 Denver PIT survey found that 5,317 people are experiencing homelessness in the city and county of Denver, competing for a total of approximately 1,000 emergency shelter beds (MDHI 2018). This number is up from the PIT count of 3,336 homeless persons in 2017.
Over time, the city of Denver has taken various approaches to “solving” the issue of homelessness. In 2003, the Denver Department of Human Services published a report titled “A Blueprint for Addressing Homeless in Denver” which outlined a ten-year action plan aimed at ending “chronic homelessness in Denver that will also address homeless prevention and the enhancement of services for populations with special needs” (Denver Homeless Planning Group 2003: 4). In 2005, Proclamation 53 was signed by then-mayor John Hickenlooper, expressing official support for Denver’s Road Home program—an initiative to secure housing for the city’s homeless population. Despite these, and other, city initiatives the homeless population in Denver continues to grow and housing costs surge past national averages. While the numbers may seem bleak, one Denver non-profit has followed the path laid out by other major cities such as Seattle, WA and Austin, TX and searched for an innovative solution. This solution came in the form of tiny houses.
Tiny homes burst onto the scene in the early 2000s. Small, sometimes mobile, homes with sleek designs offered a minimalist housing solution to people seeking a break from the materiality of the modern world. In Denver, tiny homes are now being used to provide a safe housing solution for some of Denver’s homeless population. Beloved Community Village, located in Denver’s River North (RiNo) district, consists of 11 tiny homes, housing up to 22 people. The self-governing community opened in July 2017, operating as a 180-day pilot project. In January 2018, Beloved Community Village was forced to relocate after their six-month lease with the Urban Land Conservancy expired. Luckily, the community was able to relocate only 200 feet away onto another property owned by the Urban Land Conservancy. Unfortunately, the Urban Land Conservancy and the city of Denver have only officially approved another 180-day lease agreement for the tiny house village, leaving the permanency of Beloved Community Village in question.
According to Beloved Community Village website, the village’s purpose “is to provide a home base and safe place for those who are presently in Denver and have no other place to live. With this collection of secure and insulated homes, we provide a viable solution in the midst of the current housing crisis.” While Beloved Community Village has been successful thus far in living and embodying their purpose, one has to wonder whether the tiny home model can be expanded to accommodate even more homeless residents in the Denver-metro area and throughout the state of Colorado. In May 2018, the organization behind Beloved Community Village, the Colorado Village Collaborative, revealed they are actively working to open another tiny home community at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in downtown Denver. The new village will have eight tiny homes, designated specifically for women and transgender homeless residents.
Affordable housing remains a crucial need in Denver and across the nation, as housing costs continue to rise and wages continue to stagnate. Cities and towns must face this problem head-on and work to understand how and why their communities are affected in order to develop strategies and initiatives to tackle homelessness. Homelessness is only one problem though and does not exist in isolation, thus cities need to ensure they understand the greater context and vulnerabilities unique to their community. The issues involved span everything from zoning laws and development to population growth and migration to mental health and criminal justice services. In 2016 and 2017, Corona Insights conducted a needs assessment for the city of Longmont. The research found that some of the greatest needs facing community residents are the ability to find affordable housing options and in turn, paying for housing. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2014, the availability of rental properties with a monthly rent below $800 decreased by 33%. The completion of the needs assessment and its subsequent report in Longmont equipped the city government with knowledge to better meet the human service needs of their residents.
Homelessness is a pervasive issue in many urban centers and rural areas across the country, with no end in sight. Local governments and non-profit organizations both have roles to play in addressing homelessness. Communities and organizations interested in addressing homelessness may benefit from commissioning a community needs assessment to uncover systemic challenges in their local area, and committing to enact changes informed by the assessment findings. Armed with information and compassion, we can begin to dismantle the barriers that lead to homelessness. The time is now.
The American Evaluation Association invited their Topic Interest Groups (TIGs) to each take over their blog for a week in 2018. As part of the Needs Assessment TIG, Beth and Kate were invited to write one of the blogs with tips for doing needs assessments. With help from Matt Bruce, they wrote about how to do a needs assessment with a small budget. This post originally appeared on the AEA365 blog on March 21, 2018.
Hello! We’re Beth Mulligan and Kate Darwent from Corona Insights, a firm that provides research, evaluation, and strategic consulting services for government and nonprofit organizations. We are often contacted by clients who have both very limited resources and a very strong desire to understand and address the needs in their community (whether “their community” is low-income residents of a city or county, library patrons, Latinx children in their school district, or some other group). Here are some suggestions for creative ways to get useful and actionable data for a small budget needs assessment.
- Use secondary data sources. Start by searching for and reviewing relevant existing reports or datasets. This may include reports from state agencies or national organizations that reveal insights about your target population, relevant Census data, or previous studies conducted by your client. Making sure you know what is already known before collecting new data is the first step to managing limited resources.
- Use your client’s resources creatively. Although the client may have a limited budget to pay for outside help, they may be able to offer their own time and effort, or may have volunteer staff available, or may have other budgets for materials like printing or mailing that they can use. Help the client to determine where they most need your help and expertise, and where they can take on tasks themselves with your guidance.
- Remember that perfect is the enemy of good. Although we may prefer to conduct 15 key person interviews, would conducting two be better than zero? Oftentimes, yes. And though we would like to survey everyone in the community by mail, and send no fewer than two follow-up mailings, is the information we will get from a single mailing better than nothing? Would the information from an open-link survey or an intercept survey at some community events be better than nothing? The judgment about whether to use what we may think of as lower-quality methods depends on the trade-offs in each situation. In a situation where the population is relatively small and engaged, it may be reasonable to post an open-link survey on social media. In other situations, it may be acceptable to do two interviews with service recipients rather than a representative sample survey. No one solution will fit all situations, but be open to various non-optimal solutions that find the best compromise between quality and cost, especially when you have difficult-to-reach target populations.
Sometimes budget restrictions shrink or disappear when the client understands the value of more expensive options. Don’t hesitate to communicate the benefits of things like greater coverage, higher response rates, participation from more stakeholder groups, expertise in data analysis, mapping, and so on. Hopefully you won’t have to make tradeoffs because of financial resources, but in case you do, we hope these suggestions help you maximize the resources available to help a client serve their community better.
The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Needs Assessment Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on theaea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.
As a strategist, I’m frequently looking over the horizon to see what’s next. At other times, you’ll see me scanning side-to-side looking for forces that may be coming together in new or unexpected ways.
Sometimes hindsight puts much of it into perspective.
Looking back at 2008 it occurs me that I was well ahead of the curve when I designed Corona’s Synergistic Business Model. At the time I noticed that nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver and companies like New Belgium Brewery – both former Corona clients I may add – had integrated engagement deep into their respective business models. Each realized that fostering loyalty, connection and contribution required a long-lasting approach to relationships.
They were smartly ahead of the curve.
Since then engagement has become top-of-mind for organizations. The old transactional approaches simply don’t hit the mark when people are searching for meaningful relationships and ways to make a difference.
Perhaps engagement isn’t enough.
We need to enmesh relationships into our business models.
- How are we using online communication channels to fully engage donors before, during and after a fundraising event? What is the immediate call-to-action waiting for them when they get home? Have we thanked them (enough)?
- What will define the patron experience from the first email message to the thank you note?
- How will volunteer love for us be returned in 3 months? 5 months? 1 year?
- Have we thought about the ways that a board member could entrap that new neighbor or business colleague into adopting our cause as their own?
Maybe it’s time to:
We need to activate our language if we want to activate our relationships.
So you’ve finally reached a point where you feel like you need more information to move forward as an organization, and, even more importantly, you’ve been able to secure some amount of funding to do so. Suddenly you find yourself elbow deep in old request-for-proposals (RFPs), both from your organization and others, trying to craft an RFP for your project. Where do you start?
We write a lot of proposals in response to RFPs at Corona, and based on what we’ve seen, here are a few suggestions for what to include in your next RFP:
- Decision to be made or problem being faced. One of the most important pieces of information that is often difficult to find, if not missing from an RFP, is what decision an organization is trying to make or what problem an organization is trying to overcome. Instead, we often see RFPs asking for a specific methodology, while not describing what an organization is planning to do with the information. While specifying the methodology can sometimes be important (e.g., you want to replicate an online survey of donors, you need to perform an evaluation as part of a grant, etc.), sometimes specifying it might limit what bidders suggest in their proposals.
Part of the reason why you hire a consultant is to have them suggest the best way to gather the information that your organization needs. With that in mind, it might be most useful to describe the decision or problem that your organization is facing in layman’s terms and let bidders propose different ways to address it.
- Other sources of data/contacts. Do you have data that might be relevant to the proposals? Did your organization conduct similar research in the past that you want to replicate or build upon? Do you have contact information for people who you might want to gather information from for this project? All these might be useful pieces of information to include in an RFP.
- Important deadlines. If you have key deadlines that will shape this project, be sure to include them in the RFP. Timelines can impact proposals in many ways. For example, if a bidder wants to propose a survey, a timeline can determine whether to do a mail survey, which takes longer, or a phone survey, which is often more expensive but quicker.
- Include a budget, even a rough one. I think questions about the budget are the number one question I see people ask about an RFP. While a budget might scare off a more expensive firm, it is more likely that including a budget in an RFP helps firms propose tasks that are financially feasible.
Requesting proposals can be a useful way to get a sense of what a project might cost, which might be useful if you are trying to figure out how much funding to secure. If so, it’s often helpful to just state in your RFP that your considering different options and would like pricing for each recommended task, along with the arguments for why it might be useful.
- Stakeholders. Who has a stake in the results of the project and who will be involved in decisions about the project? Do you have a single internal person that the contractor will report to or perhaps a small team? Are there others in the organization who will be using the results of the project? Do you have external funders who have goals or reporting needs that you hope to be met by the project? Clarifying who has a stake in the project and what role they will play in the project, whether providing input on goals, or approving questionnaire design, is very helpful. It is useful for the consultant to know who will need to be involved so they can plan to make sure everyone’s needs are addressed.
Writing RFPs can be daunting, but they can also be a good opportunity for thinking about and synthesizing an important decision or problem into words. Hopefully these suggestions can help with that process!
Living in America’s “it” city in a year of disruptions across the political spectrum nationally and internationally have led me to contemplate evolution in the nonprofit sector. I’m struck by what I’ve observed recently as an emerging trend – the slow decline of the intermediary organization. This may be a heretical statement, I’ll admit, but it is a shift worth watching.
It may be easiest to observe in healthcare as classic intermediary models born in the 1970s and 1980s discover that they cannot withstand disruptive changes in their marketplaces. Healthcare may be the canary in the coalmine of the nonprofit sector given the pace and scale of change. Executives and board members are learning the hard way that forces of this magnitude cannot be overcome by single organizations. They are finding themselves caught off-guard as the strategy they set in 2015 is already obsolete.
Let’s explore an example. The U.S. model of community-based engagement in cancer clinical trials is in the midst of two game-changing trends. One, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain people in clinical trials. Second, healthcare providers are shifting away from collaborative models run by the federal government to in-house options that can adapt more quickly.
Health fairs are another example. Long the staple of communities large and small in states from California to Ohio, these programs were born at a time when people would stand in line to be seen by volunteer health providers after not eating for 12 hours. Today, more people are monitoring their health on a wrist device as technological advances are leapfrogging old screening methods. Add onto that the demographic differences between the oldest Boomers and the oldest Millennials and you’ve realize that OSFA (one-size-fits-all) doesn’t fit most any more.
The emergence of platform-based models such as Uber have changed the competitive landscape for many industries. As entrepreneurs adapt the model to other industries, it’s only a matter of time before platforms are the new normal in the nonprofit sector too. Of course we’ve seen the rise of platforms in fundraising, with crowd-sourced funding and giving days as examples. I’m intrigued by the possibilities of platform-based service delivery.
As described in the April 2016 Harvard Business Review, “a platform provides the infrastructure and rules for a marketplace that brings together producers and consumers.” (Pipelines, Platforms, and the New Rules of Strategy by Marshall W. Van Alstyne, Geoffrey G. Parker, and Sangeet Paul Choudary.)
So, I’m wondering when the definitive nonprofit intermediaries of the 1970s and 1980s – the nonprofit technical assistance provider and trade association – will evolve into the platform model for 2020.
Agility and relevancy are the name of the game. I’ll be watching to see who figures that out the soonest.
Here at Corona, we gather, analyze, and interpret data for all types of nonprofits. While some of our nonprofit clients are a little data shy, many are data-heads like us! Indeed, several nonprofits (many of which we have worked for or partnered with) have developed amazing websites full of easy to access datasets.
Here are 4 of my favorite nonprofit data sources…check them out!!
The Data Initiative at the Piton Foundation
Not only do they sponsor Mile High Data Day, but the Piton Foundation produces a variety of user friendly data interfaces. I really like the creative ways they allow website visitors to explore data–not just static pie and bar charts. Instead, their interface is dynamic and extremely customizable. While their community facts tool pulls most (but not all) of its data from the US Census, this tool is very easy and fun to use. Further, they have already defined and labeled neighborhoods across the Denver Metro area, making it easy for users to compare geographies without trying to aggregate census tract or block group numbers. This is an invaluable feature for data users who don’t have access to GIS. I also appreciate the option to display margin of error on bar charts when its available.
- Easy to use from novice to expert data user
- Data available by labeled neighborhood
- 7-County Denver Metro focus
With over 1,500 datasets, OpenColorado is a treasure trove of raw data. While this site doesn’t have a fancy user interface, it does provide access to data in many different file types, making it a great website for the intermediate to advanced data user with access to software such as GIS, AutoCAD, or Google Earth. Most data on OpenColorado is from Front Range cities (e.g., Arvada, Boulder, Denver, Westminster) and counties (e.g., Boulder, Denver, Clear Creek), but unfortunately it is far from a comprehensive list, so you’d need to look elsewhere if your searching for information from Arapahoe County, for example.
There are over 200 datasets specific to the City and County of Denver. I opened a few that caught my eye, including the City’s “Checkbook” dataset that shows every payment made from the City (by City department) to payees by year. I give kudos to Denver and OpenColorado for facilitating this type of fiscal transparency. I also downloaded a dataset (CSV) of all Denver Police pedestrian and vehicle stops for the past four years, which included the outcome of each stop along with the address, latitude and longitude. For a GIS user, this is especially helpful if you want to search for patterns of police activity compared to other social and geographic factors. Even without access to spatial software, this dataset is useful because it includes neighborhood labels. I created a quick pivot table in Excel to see the top ten neighborhoods for cars being towed (so don’t park your car illegally in these neighborhoods).
- Tons of raw data
- Various file types, including shapefiles and geodatabases that are compatible with GIS, and KML files that are compatible with GoogleEarth
- Search for data by geography, tags, or custom search words
Kids Count from the Colorado Children’s Campaign
Kids Count is a well-respected data resource for all things kids. Each year, the Colorado Children’s Campaign (disclaimer, they are also our neighbor, working just two floors below us) produces the Kids Count in Colorado report, which communicates important child well-being indicators and indices statewide and by county when available. The neat thing about Kids Count is that it’s also a national program, so you can compare how indicators in a specific county compare to the state and nation. In addition to the full report available as a PDF, you can also interact with a state map and point and click to access a summary of indicators by county. Mostly, their data is not available in raw form, but their report does explain how they calculated their estimates and provides tons of contextual information that makes their key findings much more insightful.
- Compare county data to state and national trends
- Reports include easy to understand analysis and interpretation of data
- Learn about trends overtime and across demographic groups
If you’re looking for information about outdoor recreation of any type in any state, there is probably an Outdoor Foundation report that has the data you’re seeking. Based in Boulder, Colorado, the Outdoor Foundation’s most common reports communicate studies of participation rates by activity type, both at a top level and also by selected activity types such as camping, fishing, and paddle sports (haven’t yet heard of stand-up paddle boarding? It’s one of the fastest growing in terms of participation). The top-line reports show trends over the past ten years, while the more detailed Participation Reports break out participation, and other factors such as barriers to participation, by various demographics. Multiple other special reports, focusing on topics such as youth and technology, round out what’s available from this site.
The participation and special reports are helpful, but I’m most impressed with the Recreation Economy reports, which are available nationwide and within each state. These reports estimate the economic contribution of outdoor recreation, including jobs supported, tax revenue, and retail sales. For example, the outdoor recreation economy supported about 107,000 jobs in Colorado in 2013. Unfortunately, the raw data is not available for further analysis, but the summary results are still interesting and helpful.
In the past year I’ve been involved with a few projects at Corona that involve evaluating programming for teenagers. One commonality across these projects is that the organizations have been interested in building empathy in teenagers. As I’ve been reading through the literature on empathy, I’ve been thinking about how building empathy should be a goal of most nonprofits.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s research demonstrating that people are more likely to donate when they feel empathy for the recipient. This research builds upon the classic psychology research demonstrating that empathy increases the likelihood of altruism, especially when there are costs to being altruistic. It’s clear that empathy can play an important role in motivating people to give altruistically, but how can we build empathy especially for others who are not very similar to ourselves?
One useful way to build empathy in marketing materials is to create stories that allow people to connect to those who need help or to those who are helping. The idea that organizations should be engaging in storytelling to engage and attract stake holders has been recently promoted. Stories are most powerful when people are able to lose themselves in a character. This is why reading or seeing a story from the first person perspective can be so powerful.
While you don’t necessarily need research to write an empathy-building story to use in marketing materials, research can provide useful information for creating those stories. Any data or information that you have collected about your donors or your recipients can provide a great foundation for creating a story. And if you develop new, empathy-building marketing materials, you might consider testing the impact of those materials.
Did you know that when you visit Amazon.com the homepage you see may be different than the one someone else sees, even beyond the normal personalized recommendations? It’s been widely reported how Amazon is continually tweaking their homepage by running experiments, or A/B tests (sometimes referred to as split tests), to tease out what makes a meaningful impact on sales. Should this button be here or there? Does this call to action work?
For some research questions, asking people their opinion yields significant insight. For others, people just cannot give you an accurate answer. Would you be more likely to open an email with a question as a subject line or with a bold statement? You don’t really know until you try.
So, how does this work? In essence, you’re running experiments, and with any scientific experiment, you will want your control group (e.g., you don’t change anything) and your experiment group (e.g., the one you’re altering a variable with). Ideally, you randomize people into each so you don’t inadvertently influence your results by how people were selected.
So now, you have two groups. While you may want to test several items, it is easiest to test one item at a time (and run multiple experiments to test each subsequent item). This will help you isolate the impact of your change – change too many things and you won’t know what made the difference or whether if some changes were working against each other.
Finally, launch the tests and measure what happens. Did open rates differ between the two? Did engagement increase? Differences aren’t always dramatic, but even a slight change at scale can have significant impact. For instance, if we increase response on a survey by 2%, that could mean 100 additional responses for essentially no additional cost. If the change costs money – for instance one marketing piece costs more than the other – then a cost benefit analysis will need to be performed. Sure, “B” performed better, but better enough to cover the additional expense of doing it?
A few final quick tips: A/B testing is an ongoing endeavor. Maximum learning will occur over time by running many experiments. Remember, things change, so running even the same experiment over and over can still yield new insights. Finally, you don’t always have to split your groups in half. If you have 2,000 customers, you don’t need to split them into two groups of 1,000. Peeling off just 500 for an experiment may be enough and lower the chance of adverse effects.
Ok, enough with the theoretical. How does this work in real-life?
Take our own company as an example. Corona engages in A/B testing, both for our clients and our own internal learnings. For instance, we may tweak survey invites, incentive options, or other variables to gauge impact on response rates. Through such tests we’ve teased out the ideal placement for the link to the survey within an email, from whom such requests should come from, and many other seemingly insignificant variables (though they are anything but insignificant).
How about your organization? Let’s say you’re a nonprofit, since many of our clients are in the nonprofit sector. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- eNewsletters. Most newsletter platforms have the ability to do A/B testing. Test subject lines, content, colors, everything. Test days and send times.
- Website. Depending on your platform, this may be easy or more difficult. Test appeals, images, and donate call to actions.
- Ad testing. Facebook ads, Google ads, etc. Most platforms allow you make tweaks to continually optimize your performance.
- Mailings. Alter your mailing to change the appeal, call to action, images, or even form of the mailing (e.g., letter vs. postcard).
- Programming. In addition to marketing and communications, even your services could possibly be tested. What service delivery model works best? Creates the biggest change?
What other ideas would you want to test?
I spent the other afternoon sitting around a large table chatting with professionals from across the sector about leadership, and the competencies that an effective leader will need in 2025. As we were chatting about today’s realities – and the social, political, technical and economic factors affecting nonprofits – it struck me that we’ve been here before. Or at least I have. Where’s that you may ask? Contemplating the “next era” of the sector.
While our social consciousness is slow to evolve and too slow to change (think social equity and gender identity) we are witnessing change in the form of driver-less cars, “smart” cities, neuroscience, and the record number of Americans not in the workforce. Those topics weren’t showing up on my Facebook feed five years ago. Back then we weren’t contemplating car-free micro-apartments in Denver either.
What else is on the nonprofit leader’s to-do list today? Six recurring topics with new twists.
- $ – Figure out what impact investing really is and whether or not we can do it. I know you are secretly wondering if this really is a game changer or simply a spin on the same old, same old. It’s a game changer.
- Inclusiveness – Learn how we can create inclusive and accessible organizations that welcome and engage diverse people. We can’t keep kicking this can down the road.
- Innovation – Explore the edges of our work, seeking new ideas from unexpected places leveraging tools like design thinking.
- Mission impact – Admit to ourselves that we don’t really understand our customers or how to positively impact their lives in a meaningful way and that we may need to toss out some of our favorites.
- Engagement – Realize that too often we treat people transactionally. We think of them in buckets – volunteers, Facebook followers, donors, etc. We haven’t optimized our business models to cultivate engagement. Check out my Synergistic Business ModelTM if you’d like to learn more about this all-to-often ignored cornerstone of the nonprofit business model.
- Sustainability – Fess up that our business models aren’t really sustainable and that we need thoughtful, committed and generous people to stand by us for the next few years while we invest in figuring things out – or, more bravely, exit the market and let someone new and fresh bring 2025 solutions to the marketplace.
There are no bright, defining lines between the sectors, only smudges that get fainter every time we step on them. Younger generations could care less about your tax status. They want to know you are authentic, relevant, impactful and efficient. They expect you to do good. Period. Gen Y and the boomers are learning from them.
What competencies will a nonprofit leader likely need in 2025? My list begins with “intelligence” and the courage to explore, experiment and collaborate. Higher education is looking at multi-disciplinary learning. Perhaps nonprofits need to consider busting their silo’ed approaches too.
What’s on your list?
2025 will be here before we know it. Are you ready?