Outcomes, impact and criminal prosecution — A harbinger for the non-profit community?

jailAttention non-profit professionals . . . are you paying attention to the news? There is a news story developing in Atlanta, and it may be a harbinger of things to come for non-profit agencies who take money from the government. This made-for-cable-television-drama involves a school superintendent, dozens of teachers and administrators, and a conspiracy to change thousands of standardized tests. All of this was done in the name of maintaining government pass-through funding.

Click here or on the YouTube window below to get a better explanation of what is going on, and then we’ll talk about why I believe this is relevant to the non-profit sector.


When I heard this story, my mind immediately turned to the countless number of non-profit organizations that are struggling to develop a community impact and program outcomes model. The intent behind these efforts usually include:

  • evolving with their local United Way community impact initiative,
  • becoming more competitive when it comes to foundation and government grant writing, and
  • being able to show individual and corporate donors a return on their investment.

Of course, one of the central questions at the center of this struggle (as well as at the center of the No Child Left Behind debate) is:

“Who cares if test scores go up if it doesn’t result in solving the greater community need?”

For example, there is some evidence that shows students doing better on standardized tests, but more and more of incoming college students are enrolling in remedial classes their freshman year because they didn’t learn what they needed to learn prior to applying for college.

Isn’t it the same question for non-profit organizations?

How many youth development agencies are running child obesity programming with government funding and using pre- and post-test methods to determine if the participant was able to digest and regurgitate the program curriculum. Of course, knowing that I shouldn’t eat Cheetos and actually not eating them are two different things. Right? So, what is the donor really paying for and are we measuring the right things?

The bigger question being begged by the Atlanta school district news story is:

“If we tie student test performance to school funding, then aren’t we creating a situation where institutions are tempted to bend rules and even cheat the system?”

As I asked earlier, isn’t it the same question for non-profit organizations?

Do I believe there are non-profit organizations who “fudge” their program outcomes evaluation in order to keep their United Way happy? Sure I do!

Do I also believe there are non-profit organizations who do the same thing with their government grant deliverables? Yes, I believe there are a few.

You can chalk this blog post up to my cynicism. Or you can use it to ward off temptation to game the system. I suggest the later and not the former because there isn’t any difference between what the educators in Atlanta did and a non-profit organization misrepresenting its outcomes data to a local, state or federal funding source.

If you buy into this line of reasoning, then keep your eyes on the Atlanta news story because I predict the plot will thicken and jail time could be in a few people’s future.

Does your agency have policies in place that help protect against any of this happening (e.g. ethics policy, whistleblower policy, document destruction policy, etc)?  Are these policies just on paper or are their routinely used? Does your organization have shared values? If so, how are those values integrated into the hiring process to ensure that you’re hiring ethical employees? Do you believe the Atlanta school story is a harbinger or am I just over reacting? Please weigh-in using the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.