In this podcast, Perla Ni, the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits speaks about her background and how it inspired her to build the organization. She discusses the importance of “beneficiary feedback” and how those served by nonprofits are sometimes best able to evaluate their effectiveness.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Denver: Would you go away on summer vacation to a spot you’ve never been before without checking TripAdvisor or some other comparable site? And while you were there, would you just wander into any old restaurant for dinner before looking at the Yelp reviews on your phone? Or buy a new propane gas grill without reading customer reviews online to see what others had to say about it? Well the answer to all this, is of course not! So, does it make any sense to support a charity without reading a review from those who’ve been helped by it and others who were involved in some capacity? Well, my next guest didn’t think so either. That is why she started GreatNonprofits. It’s a great pleasure for me to welcome to the show Perla Ni, the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. Good evening, Perla, and thanks so much for being with us this evening.
Perla: Thank you. It’s been great to be here.
Denver: So, the year is 2005, and you are the publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, one of the premiere publications in the philanthropic and nonprofit management world, and Hurricane Katrina strikes. So people come to you and ask where can they contribute to make the most meaningful difference. After all, who’s gonna know any better than you? What do you tell them?
Perla: And that was the question of the day. Many of my friends and family told me they wanted to contribute and really make an impact by giving to local nonprofits. Could I recommend some local nonprofits in New Orleans or Biloxi, Mississippi that they could give to? I sat there really puzzled. Here I was at Stanford, one of the most wonderful publications here in the country focused on nonprofit management. But I did not know about local nonprofits in that area. One of my journalist friends went out there to volunteer, and when he came back, he told me of several fantastic local nonprofits that he had seen helping people get medical care, taking people to get registered for emergency housing. And he said these are organizations that often are not well-known to the world. That really inspired me to create GreatNonprofits– which is a way for folks to share experiences about nonprofits as volunteers, as donors, and as clients that have been helped by the nonprofit.
Denver: How did the idea of “beneficiary feedback” — those people who’ve been helped by these nonprofits –crystallize in your mind to build an organization?
Perla: Well, I think as a journalist, you want to interview people who have experienced the impact of a nonprofit firsthand. Often, I think we look to experts to ask them who are the best nonprofits out there. In many cases, the experts are really the people who are served by the nonprofit. They can tell you that this organization– their offices are open, and at a convenient time for me. They had the food that was accessible to me. They had tutors available for my family. They treated me with respect and dignity. They helped promote this movement that I am part of. They’re furthering this legislation, and I have seen them work hard at writing letters to legislators.
There are so many amazing organizations in this country. And nonprofits famously have tiny marketing budgets, and they don’t have budgets for advertising. So it’s really the stories of the people from the community that can help these nonprofits gain visibility and recognition.
Denver: Yeah, it’s interesting how we’ve had this customer satisfaction movement in this country– which really started with the consumer rights movement Kennedy started in the 1960s. But for some reason, it has never gotten to the nonprofit sector to make this part of who we are.
Perla: Yeah, and for the nonprofit sector, they really have a variety of different customers. They’ve got the clients that they serve. They’ve got the volunteers who come and pack the grocery bags, chop the food at the food pantry. And they’ve got the donors who in many cases are also members of that community. It’s remarkable that many donors used to be former clients. Many donors are also volunteers. And of course, you have many donors who also volunteer in pro-bono ways with their skills and their time. So, it’s a whole community of folks who really can see the impact of a nonprofit.
Denver: So, getting this information from beneficiaries and others that you’ve just mentioned, you recognized that it would be extremely useful to donors and to nonprofits. But you need to create a framework or a mechanism to make this work in an efficient and effective manner. What was your thinking about this, and how did you go about trying to build an infrastructure?
Perla: I think especially in these days of everyone wanting to have a voice, an opinion; everyone using different mechanisms for social media, writing down their opinions, and sharing with each other– the natural place I looked was– are there any technology forms to create the kind of community of people who really want to surface the organizations that are doing a really good job in the community? Today, we have now over 260,000 submissions from across the country– about over 33,000 nonprofits– and these are nonprofits that range from small grassroots organizations to national organizations, to the food pantry in your local city or town. So it’s really remarkable how open people have been with their hearts in contributing these stories about nonprofits in their local areas.
It’s a small local organization but it’s just one of the examples where when you bring the stories of people together, the collective voice really has an impact.
Denver: Have you been able to measure the impact that these reviews have on a particular nonprofit? Let’s say as far as their fundraising is concerned? Do they have an impact?
Perla: Yeah, absolutely. We did a survey, and 9 out of 10 donors say that the stories help them better understand the work of the nonprofit. And 8 out of 10 say that the stories influence their decision whether or not to donate to an organization.
Denver: Quite impressive!
Perla: And you know I think also that the stories are very inspirational, at least to me. I read them every day.
Denver: Give us one or two.
Perla: Well, if you look at here in the New York area, there’s an organization called P.A.’L.A.N.T.E., which does advocacy rights in Harlem. You read the stories about the people who had been living in these decrepit apartments, infested with rats, with wires falling down from the ceiling, with inadequate plumbing. These tenants who’ve been complaining for years to their landlords and not getting anywhere. And then, this organization, P.A.’L.A.N.T.E., started by a former banker who herself had an issue with her landlord not keeping up her apartment. She started this organization that brings together all these residents and brings their voices together. In many cases, they have one lawsuit against the landlords and have been able to get their apartments fixed as a result. It’s a small local organization, but it’s just one of the examples where when you bring the stories of people together, the collective voice really has an impact.
Denver: Yeah, I bet it does. These reviews, we talk about how they can impact the donors, but do they also impact the nonprofits? And by that I mean, do they regularly check these out to see what their beneficiaries are saying about the work they’re doing? And if a consistent theme in these reviews becomes apparent, they actually might alter the kind of program their giving?
Perla: Yeah. For the nonprofits, there are two effects from these stories. One is that they really help the nonprofits increase their staff morale. People don’t often realize this, but everyday, it’s challenging working at many of these nonprofits because the progress is slow; it’s a little difficult to create long-term, sustainable change. You’re changing people’s behaviors; you’re dealing with very complicated personal issues amongst the clients that you serve. You have to deal with legislators. You’re working on a tiny shoestring budget.
Denver: That’s exactly right.
Perla: So, morale is often low at these nonprofits. Then, all of a sudden, you have a story of someone who came in 10 years ago and got emergency food from this food pantry. Now 10 years later, that person is doing well, has a job, is working as assistant admin. And he says, “I wouldn’t be here today without that food. You know, that one time that I came into the pantry for a food because I totally ran out of money.” So when the staff of these nonprofits read… “Wow, this is what happened to that person who came in 10 years ago. I didn’t know!” It really helps them to understand the long-term impact of the work that sometimes they don’t see on a day-to-day basis.
The second effect is when they do see suggestions for improvement, they will go ahead and listen to that feedback. And that’s also really important for us that they listen and they care about the stories from their community. It’s an effective way to gather that kind of feedback.
Denver: Yeah, I would think also, if it’s on your site sometimes, it’s a little bit easier for people to do that there — as opposed to directly on the site of the nonprofit that may have helped them. You’re always looking to try to take the information you collect here to scale because otherwise, people will have to come to GreatNonprofits to read it. Have you been able to conceive of a way that you can disseminate it on a broader basis?
Perla: Yeah, we’re really excited to have partners such as Global Giving and GuideStar, and a number of other websites and software companies that use our API to distribute the content to their customers. So, over 20 million folks actually see the GreatNonprofits content in addition to our own website.
Denver: That’s just a great combination. Because on some of those sites, you’re getting some real hard financial data and impact data. Then when you get that with the human voice, it probably is a great combination for people to make the most informed decision.
Perla: Yeah, I think you need both the heart and the head. I think giving is an art and a science.
Denver: Let me talk to you a little bit about beneficiary feedback some more. We had David Bonbright on the show earlier this year. He’s from Keystone Accountability and as you know beneficiary feedback– or as they call it “constituent voice”– is their whole thing. And we got into a conversation about “courtesy bias.” I know that you’re aware of this, and you’ve tried to make some provisions to account for it. What have you done?
Perla: Well, courtesy bias is a phenomenon seen across any kind of site that has user generated content. On the internet, people prefer to talk about happier things rather than negative things. You see this on Facebook. It’s predominantly happy news about: here’s my pet, here’s my birthday, here’s our wedding celebration, here’s our vacation.
Denver: Well, I think they’re branding themselves as well. They’re trying to tell everybody that they’re awesome.
Perla: Yeah, so I don’t think it’s unique that there is some degree of a positivity bias in anything that people share on the internet. But I would say that what is remarkable to us is when you read these stories, you are reading what appears to us to be very authentic voices from these marginalized communities who otherwise would never be heard. For instance, you can go on our site, and you can read the story from a low-income African-American girl and her experience with an after-school tutoring program. And it’s raw; it’s not edited by us. It is a long story, and you can see her talk about the positives as well as some of the slight drawbacks of the nonprofit and their space constraints that they have at this after-school tutoring program. But especially in this day and age– when we feel like the internet should be a vehicle for bringing us together–This is one example in which you can imagine yourself being this person from a very different walk of life than you.
Denver: Sticking with that point, Perla, about trying to get information from underserved, low-income communities– it can be tough. They move very often. Often, there are language barriers, and sometimes when people come into their neighborhood with a clipboard to take a survey, they’re not exactly welcoming. One of the things you’ve done to address this is launch an initiative called Citizen Insights. What is it, and how does it work?
Perla: Thanks. That’s a really great question. Citizen Insights is our initiative to really get boots on the street to really understand what’s going on in some of the poorest neighborhoods in this country. We’ve worked in Latino communities and south Los Angeles, in San Jose. We worked for the African-American communities in Pennsylvania. It is really looking at how can we create a bridge and a dialogue with some of the poorest communities and neighborhoods in which 60% or more of the people rely on public transportation. These are not people who live in New York City. So being in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and relying on public transportation is an indicator of a pretty low income. What we do is we use text messaging to do surveys in these communities because everyone these days has a phone.
Denver: That’s right.
Perla: And everyone knows how to text. Unlike mailing addresses, low-income people tend to move pretty frequently or stay at their family’s house, or be moving to another city or neighborhood for a job, or staying on a friend’s couch for a couple of weeks. They have their phone with them. So, the phone is an excellent way to be able to get timely and honest feedback from low-income residents. We’ve been really excited to have done projects funded by the Heinz Endowments, the Grable Foundation, the California Endowment, and California Wellness Foundations to really go into some of these under-served communities and understand: What is the access to job training opportunities? What is their access to health care? What is the access to after-school educational activities for their kids?
Denver: If the phone is a game-changer, I’d be curious as to how you see technology changing the very nature of civic engagement–not only among the millennials, but I guess we also have to probably include Generation Z in this conversation– those people who were born between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s. What have you observed in this regard?
Perla: I think for younger people, they have a deep need to be affiliated with a group, to be part of a group. I think that’s true for all of us to some extent but especially for younger folks. They are looking for a way to make a difference while being part of a group. Some of the more exciting things that we’ve seen is the rise of youth philanthropy groups–young people getting together to make decisions about giving in their communities. Increasingly, we seek community foundations that have junior boards. Kids in high school volunteer or apply to be on this junior board, and then they get to sit around the table and talk about what youth organizations in their community are deserving of funding. It’s a great way for young people to do things together, fundraise together, make giving decisions together, and learn about their community together.
Denver: Yeah, and the operative word there is “together.”
Denver: So, one of the wonderful things you do on your website is take all this information and you aggregate it, and you put it together and index it beautifully in something called the GreatNonprofits Top Rated Awards. Tell us about that.
Perla: These are the People’s Choice Awards. These are nonprofits that have had tremendous positive stories by their communities. We call them top rated because they are rated by people in their community, and this is bottom up awards to recognize those organizations that are really deeply making an impact in their community.
Denver: Yeah. I would imagine it’s probably the smaller organizations that really benefit from a site like GreatNonprofits as opposed to a big, larger international and national organizations.
Perla: We have a huge range. The Federation of American College Women have fantastic stories about the impact that they have made, and they’re a national organization. And yes, we really have small grassroots organization on our site as well that you can read — the stories and the testimonials of their volunteers and the clients that they helped.
We really need to repair our communities and continue to volunteer, continue to go to community events, talk to our neighbors, do all those things that we used to do to have relationships with our fellow human beings.
Denver: I know, Perla, you really understand nonprofits. And partly, it’s because your family arrived in this country with about $100, and you had to rely on a lot of nonprofits for things such as dentistry and a whole bunch of other things as well. How has that experience informed the work you have done both at the Stanford Social Innovation Review and now with GreatNonprofits?
Perla: I think people forget that nonprofits are all around us. In Central Park, the carriage rides and the cleaning is run by nonprofit. The national parks– if you’re travelling to Yosemite this summer, many of the paths, the brand new paths were paid for by a group, a nonprofit group, that fundraised to do that maintenance. So many of the services out there available to low-income people are provided now by nonprofits, not the government. So, when I was growing up, just that experience of when I looked back at my childhood photos, in every photo, I look at my outfit and that outfit — those jeans, that t-shirt. They were donated to a nonprofit. My family never could afford to buy new clothes. The bicycle in that picture, again, was a used bicycle that was donated to a nonprofit. And so, I personally have witnessed and have experienced what a difference nonprofits can make for the lives of ordinary people. And it’s important to know even if now I’m middle class– and I don’t rely on those services anymore– to really understand what a huge role those nonprofits play in creating a safety net for people in our community, as well as really contributing to the arts and culture and civil society that we have – that we often take for granted until we start seeing divisions in our communities, and we wonder what happened? How come people are not talking to each other?
Perla: And then you realize: Wow, we really need to repair our communities and continue to volunteer, continue to go to community events, talk to our neighbors, do all those things that we used to do to have relationships with our fellow human beings.
Some people might think that the act of giving was my parting with my money. My giving, my losing my money, and giving it to someone else. I actually think that the active giving is an act of creating a relationship with other people on your community in which the giver also gains something.
Denver: What’s your take on the role that philanthropy plays in communities? How the two work best together. Give us a little sense of your observations on this.
Perla: Some people might think that the act of giving was my parting with my money… my giving, my losing my money, and giving it to someone else. I actually think that the act of giving is an act of creating a relationship with other people in your community in which the giver also gains something. When you look at some of the giving circles, particularly across the United States– and there’s almost one in every town now where a group of people voluntarily come together, voluntarily pool their money together, and decide on which organizations they would want to give their money to as well as volunteer with. It’s a combination of money as well as volunteering. You see that these folks can tell you about how that experience transforms them. Giving is not just a transaction. They gain incredible relationships. They meet people from other walks of life. They make friends with other volunteers, with other donors, with clients. Some of the most amazing stories I’ve ever come across are relationships between donors/volunteers and some of the kids that they mentor and how these relationships become friendships, and it’s now 10 years later and they still hang out and go to dinner once a month on Saturday night. It’s really incredible that the capacity for giving to create community and communities to support giving.
I really encourage folks to use it as a starting place but not as the final destination. Please do go out there and visit the nonprofit. Go attend the community event that they might be putting on. Sign up to volunteer. Get involved. It’s really when you get involved that you see and you feel firsthand the impact of the organization.
Denver: A very healthy way to go about living one’s life. Tell us about your website, the kind of information that people are going to find there and maybe a few tips on how they can best navigate it for their own means.
Perla: The website is greatnonprofits.org. We’re a nonprofit ourselves. You’ll see when you go to the site, nonprofits nearest to you. You could search for an issue that you care most about. I really encourage folks to use it as a starting place but not as the final destination. Please do go out there and visit the nonprofit. Go attend the community event that they might be putting on. Sign up to volunteer. Get involved. It’s really when you get involved that you see and you feel firsthand the impact of the organization.
Denver: Well, Perla Ni, founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. You’re doing a great service for both donors and nonprofits. And I hope more and more people will use this information to make better and wiser decisions. It was a real pleasure to have you on this show.
Perla: Great pleasure to be here. Thank you!
*The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 PM and 7:00 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @BizofGiv on Twitter and at Facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving.