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The team from Charity Navigator, the nation's largest independent charity evaluator and leading donor advocate, shares their thoughts on emerging nonprofit-sector issues and offers tips to better inform your intelligent giving decisions.

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Monday, March 16, 2020

An Invitation to Experiment and to Learn With Us

A New Blog Series on our Journey in Building a New System of Nonprofit Evaluation



Over the next few months, Charity Navigator will launch the first of a number of new indicators that will provide a more complete picture of nonprofit performance, allowing us to evaluate a much larger swath of the nonprofit sector.   As part of the rollout, we will launch new nonprofit profile pages that contain more data in an easier to use and more interactive format with an eye to modern design. 

For those organizations and nonprofits that rely on our existing star rating system, don’t worry!  We are very much keeping our star rating system, and learnings from our new experiments will inform its evolution over time.  We will disrupt ourselves in gaining new insights into factors such as Leadership and Strategy, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), Program Impact, and Reputation without affecting the fundraising operations of star rated nonprofits and the donors who rely on our evaluations to inform their giving choices.

We invite individual and institutional donors, nonprofit leaders, academics, and others who are interested to join us in this journey of experimenting with the new tools and analyses that we develop.  We hope you will give us honest and candid feedback about what works and, just as importantly, what doesn’t. We will make some mistakes along the way as we experiment, and that’s very much the goal.  In a more agile mode of being, we want to learn and fail forward to innovate the meaningful evaluation of the nonprofit sector.  

Building on Our History of Experimentation

Charity Navigator at its inception was a grand experiment in finding avenues for donors seeking to ensure that their philanthropic giving was as intelligent and impactful as possible.  Our founder, Pat Dugan, in attempting to gain greater clarity of the causes and organizations that mattered most to him, realized just how little information was available to assist donors in making philanthropic investments.  He founded Charity Navigator as a resource to donors, a set of measures and tools that would do the data analysis to help donors validate their charitable inclinations and trust that their dollars were going to people and organizations truly making an impact in the world.  

Mr. Dugan and the early team devised a star rating system that looked at financial health metrics and scored nonprofits across causes and regions so that we could better traverse the varied missions and operating models within the nonprofit sector.  Over the years, the star rating system evolved to include both financial health and accountability and transparency measures to help make sense of what can often feel like is an opaque world of nonprofit organizations for donors.   We continue this legacy of experimenting and learning today as we conceive of a more comprehensive system of measurement for nonprofit effectiveness.  



An Inflection Point for Charity Navigator 

I am excited to join Charity Navigator at this inflection point in our history with an opportunity to both learn from and influence the donor community and the nonprofits they support.  In my first four months in the newly created position of Chief Ratings Technology Officer, I have had to quickly pick up on my responsibilities for ratings evolution, the underlying engineering, and data analysis to produce our ratings and our programs that partner with nonprofits and other sector-wide leaders. We have identified a number of key opportunities. I hope you will join us in exploring these domains together:

  • Delivering Trust at Scale – How do we evaluate a significantly larger number of nonprofits in order to provide some indicator of trust to donors?  Currently, we rate about 9,000 nonprofits through our star rating system, which involves the work of a human analyst to generate a complete evaluation.  People are always surprised to hear that we are such a small (but mighty!) team. How do we capture the best available data in automated ways to increase the capacity of our staff? 
  • Visualizing Nonprofit Effectiveness - What visual systems of indicators would lend themselves to quickly conveying the effectiveness of a particular nonprofit and encourage those who want to dig deeper to do so?  We will ask your opinion about what visuals work best for you as we make rendering and design decisions.
  • Determining Indicators of Organizational Effectiveness – What’s most important to you as you evaluate a nonprofit’s impact and effectiveness?  What are nonprofit leaders most paying attention to determine how they achieve their mission and a level of sustainability to do the work well?  

As you can see, we are tackling some complicated issues (and this just scratches the surface) where there may not be just one right answer.  We’ll try different modalities and measures to see what works best for donors and nonprofits.  As we do, you have my personal commitment to listen and incorporate the feedback we hear from you. We would appreciate it if you could fill out this very short survey, so we can begin to collect your feedback. I am looking forward to getting to know you through this process while we learn together.


Written by Stephen Rockwell, Chief Ratings Technology Officer at Charity Navigator. Stephen is leading the team of charity analysts, program specialists, and development engineers that will launch the new rating methodology and criteria.

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