Assessing to Achieve High Performance

The Center for Effective Philanthropy featured the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in its report about nonprofits' performance assessments. Below is CEP's press release: 

New CEP Research Raises Questions about Nonprofit Performance Assessment

Cambridge, MA – New research released today from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) concludes that most nonprofits receiving funding from large foundations collect and use information about their performance, yet many want to gather additional — or better — data, and only a minority report receiving support from their foundation funders for those efforts.

The report, entitled Assessing to Achieve High Performance: What Nonprofits are Doing and How Foundations Can Help, analyzes survey data from 183 U.S.-based organizations with between $100,000 and $100 million in annual expenses that receive funding from foundations giving at least $5 million annually. Almost all nonprofits in the study report making efforts to assess their performance. But many — 71 percent of respondents — cite a desire for more detailed data, a larger volume of data, or more frequently collected data to help them perform better in pursuit of their goals.

“Our findings suggest that nonprofits are committed to performance assessment, contrary to how they are often portrayed,” said report lead author and CEP Vice President – Research Ellie Buteau.  “Most nonprofits cannot do this all on their own — they have neither the infrastructure nor the resources necessary to do this work as well as they’d like. We hope our findings can help foundations understand what nonprofits are looking for, and how foundations can better support them in assessing and improving performance.”

The typical nonprofit in the study reports allocating two percent or less of its budget to performance assessment, and few dedicate any full-time staff to measuring performance. When it comes to funder support for helping grantee organizations measure their performance, a minority of the nonprofits surveyed report receiving support from foundations for their performance assessment efforts.

The nonprofits surveyed report mainly using their performance information to improve their programs and services, inform their strategic direction, and communicate about their progress. To a lesser extent, they are using it to share what they are learning with other organizations or to manage their staff.

To illustrate how nonprofits are working to assess their performance, the report profiles the assessment activities of three nonprofit organizations with diverse goals and functions: the Young Women’s Christian Association of North Orange County in Fullerton, CA; Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, TX; and Community Organizing and Family Issues in Chicago, IL.

The report also includes interviews with leaders from The Assisi Foundation of Memphis and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, two funders whose grantees rate them more highly than almost all other foundations in CEP’s Grantee Perception Report® dataset for being helpful to their ability to assess their progress toward their organizations’ goals.

“The Assisi Foundation of Memphis and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation may not be as well-known as many other foundations,” said Buteau, “but our grantee survey data suggests that as far as grantees are concerned, they are among the very best in helping nonprofits in their assessment efforts.”

CEP’s findings suggest that there are opportunities for nonprofits to do more to gather the most meaningful performance data and use it to both better manage their own organizations and share with others. But for this to happen, they’ll need more support from their foundation funders.

“For well over a decade, we’ve heard heightened foundation rhetoric about the importance of performance assessment,” said CEP President Phil Buchanan. “While some foundations have backed this up with resources to allow nonprofits to do this difficult work better, too many have not. We hope this report helps foundations better understand what nonprofits need to develop the data and insight that will allow for better progress toward the crucial goals nonprofits and foundations are working together to achieve.”

The report is available for free download on CEP’s website.


The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide data and create insight so philanthropic funders can better define, assess, and improve their effectiveness and impact. CEP received initial funding in 2001 and has offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California. For more information on CEP’s work, including its research, publications, programming, and assessment tools, visit

The Center for Effective Philanthropy – Improving foundation performance through data and insight.