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Power for Puerto Rico

26 Oct

Tesla Puerto RicoI’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for entrepreneurs: people who create successful businesses from nothing.  Peter Thiel calls this going from “Zero to One.”

One of my favorite people in this category is Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, and several other ventures.

According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, the Governor of Puerto Rico, which is still trying to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, reached out to Musk by tweet on October 6 suggesting that Puerto Rico could be a “flagship project” for Tesla. Musk responded that same day saying that he would “be happy to talk.”

Fast forward to this past Tuesday (October 24), “less than three weeks after their social media rapport began – Tesla tweeted that the project was ‘going live.'”

The project was to supply power to a hurricane battered children’s hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  In last than three weeks Musk and the Governor talked, decided on how to proceed, and Tesla “assembled a solar panel installation and battery storage project” at the hospital. The hospital is now completely solar powered.

That’s what an entrepreneur can do.  You have to love that.

Comments welcome.

Eric Fraint, President & Founder
Your Part-Time Controller, LLC
www.YPTC.com

The Truth About Nonprofit Outcomes Measurement: Trying to run when you cannot yet walk

28 Dec

Outcomes measurement at nonprofit organizations will never gain widespread traction until at least one fundamental problem is solved.

Much has been written about the potential benefits of outcomes measurement.  Who can argue that knowing the effectiveness of a nonprofit’s programs is anything but a good thing?  Donors and nonprofits alike should want to know the effectiveness of their grantmaking so that they can fix what is broken or redirect funds to what works.

I’ve written separately about the futility of attempting to find a single measure of effectiveness (see “In Search of the Holy Grail of the Nonprofit World” ).  Yet, though often difficult and expensive, measuring effectiveness can be very beneficial.

But there is an underlying problem, typically overlooked in the outcomes measurement debate, which prevents most* nonprofits from being able to measure their outcomes: most organizations cannot effectively measure, report on, and analyze their basic finances.  How can these organizations, who cannot adequately and timely report on their financial operations, be expected to move to the next level of measuring, reporting, and analyzing their outcomes?

* My assertion that “most” nonprofits cannot do a proper job of reporting the basics of their financial operations is based on my experience over the last 20 years working with and visiting hundreds of nonprofits.  (I exempt our accounting clients from this troubled group: our clients have strong financial reporting systems!)

The uncomfortable truth is that asking a nonprofit organization to perform relatively sophisticated outcomes measurement when they cannot properly perform basic accounting and financial reporting functions is like asking a child to run who cannot yet walk.

Comments welcome.

Eric Fraint, President and Founder
Your Part-Time Controller, LLC
The NONPROFIT accounting specialists

Fare & Square & Vision

30 Nov

A vision was recently realized.  What was the vision and who was behind it?  Read on.

The first nonprofit supermarket, named “Fare & Square,” opened in a “food desert” in Chester Pennsylvania on Saturday, September 28, 2013.  Chester, a city of 34,000 where one in three people live in poverty, had been without a supermarket for twelve years.

If you’ve not heard about this, I refer you to various news articles and videos.  See the citations below.

In this blog, though, I am interested in the vision that made this possible, and the man behind the vision.

The man is Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance.  Philabundance is the largest hunger relief organization in the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. It was founded in 1984 by Pam Lawler as a food rescue organization and later taken over by Scott Schaffer who expanded the organization’s operations.  Bill came in as executive director in 2001.

I can’t say for sure when the idea that has become Fare & Square first germinated, but various press stories have given credit to Bill for working on this for seven years.  I can say this, however: it has not been an easy seven years.

Along the way Bill had to overcome every imaginable obstacle.

To secure funding Bill had to cobble together a hesitant coalition of government, foundation, and private support.  He had to persuade his board that the plan was viable.  He had to win the hearts and minds of his staff that worried that the organization was straying too far from its food rescue origins.  The business model had to be developed.  Consultants and experts of all types had to be consulted.   A skeptical local community in Chester, who had seen too many promises in the past go bad, had to be wooed.  And ultimately, an executive director willing to risk his job, career, and reputation was required.

Team efforts are needed for grand visions to succeed.  In this case the team consisted of a strong board which gave the go-ahead, a highly motivated staff that did the work, funders who understood the potential, and a local community who appreciates the results.

At the center of all this was a man with a vision.  Bill Clark.

Fare & Square is still brand new.  The final chapters on this story have yet to be written.  But two things are eminently clear:

(1) thousands of people in the city of Chester will benefit greatly, and;

(2) none of this would have happened without a man of vision, Bill Clark.

Comments welcome.

Eric Fraint, President and Founder
Your Part-Time Controller, LLC

For additional information about Fare & Square, I refer the reader to the following links:

The Philadelphia Inquirer – http://articles.philly.com/2013-09-30/news/42505117_1_ninth-and-trainer-streets-west-end-food-center-grocery-store

The New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/opinion/sunday/an-oasis-of-groceries.html?_r=0

A video on Billmoyers.com – http://billmoyers.com/content/an-oasis-in-a-food-desert/

Philabundance website – www.philabundance.org

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In Search of the Holy Grail of the Nonprofit World

31 Jul

The single metric that will tell us how effectively a nonprofit delivers on its mission does not now and likely never will exist.

Despite our desire to measure impact, there are many things that simply cannot be measured, or are too costly or impractical to measure.

Quite frankly, even when outcomes can be measured, reasonable people can disagree about the interpretation of the data.

Take for example Peter Singer.

Mr. Singer’s Wikipedia entry describes him as “an Australian moral philosopher. He is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.”

In a recent TED Talk recorded in March 2013, Mr. Singer said that some charities are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than others.

To illustrate his point, he posed the following facts about blindness.

He says that it costs about $40,000 to train a guide dog and to train the recipient in how to work together.  However, it only costs somewhere between $20 and $50 to cure a blind person of blindness in a developing country if he has trachoma.

In other words, Mr. Singer says that you can “provide one guide dog for one blind American [emphasis added] or you can cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness.”

He adds “Providing a guide dog for a blind person is a good thing to do, but you have to think what else you could do with the resources…I think it is clear what the better thing is to do.”

If I were a blind person in America, I might have a serious disagreement about Mr. Singer’s interpretation of the data and his resulting conclusion.

His comparison itself is flawed as it poses a binary set of options: choose one, which is wasteful, or choose the other, which is hundreds of times more effective.

The comparison is further flawed as it compares apples to oranges: assisting a blind person by giving her a guide dog is not the same issue as curing blindness.

The several hundred blind people who receive guide dogs every year, as well as the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who donate to the nonprofits that make this happen, will have a sharply different opinion from Mr. Singer about the effectiveness of their philanthropy.

photo

[This graphic, taken from a TED Talk given by Mr. Peter Singer in March 2013, attempts to equate the relative effectiveness of providing guide dogs to blind people versus curing blindness caused by trachoma.]

The point is this: If a distinguished moral ethicist like Mr. Singer can make this mistake, what does this portend for the ability of the rest of us to come up with an objective metric, or series of objective metrics, to measure the effectiveness of a nonprofit, even when we have the data?

Like the Holy Grail, we are unlikely to find it.

PS  Make no mistake, I am not a nihilist.  As an accountant who makes a living helping nonprofit organizations, I believe in the power of timely, accurate financial and non-financial information, once analyzed and interpreted, to help power an organization toward superior results.  I just do not believe there is any single metric, or set of metrics, that will somehow make it possible to rate or compare nonprofits to each other in terms of their effectiveness.

Comments welcome.

Eric Fraint, President and Founder
Your Part-Time Controller, LLC

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