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21 Apr. 2015 | Comments (0)

Last month, I listened in to GuideStar’s first quarterly “Impact Call” for 2015. The idea intrigues me. Impact calls make sense—after all, companies discuss results with their primary stakeholders through quarterly earnings calls. Why wouldn’t nonprofits use the format to discuss their primary performance measures with key stakeholders?

James Lum, GuideStar’s CFO, helped me understand more about the calls and what the organization has learned from hosting them.

Q: Can you walk us through one of your typical Impact Calls? What are you trying to convey, and what are you hoping to learn?

A: The nonprofit sector highly values transparency but our idea of transparency is often relatively opaque compared to that seen with publicly traded companies. Our Impact Calls are an attempt to bring that same level of timeliness, rigor, and openness to the nonprofit sector. The calls are structured like earnings calls in three sections. In the first part, our CEO highlights programmatic and operational milestones, focusing on our impact rather than our business results. In the next section, I discuss the previous quarter’s financial results. Lastly, we open up the call to our audience with a Q&A session.

Our goals with our Impact Calls are to get results-based information to our stakeholders in a timely, interactive, inclusive, and comprehensive manner. It is our way to have a direct conversation with our audience, receiving their real-time feedback.

Q: How did you determine what impact metrics you should collect and share?

A: Measuring our impact ultimately links back to our theory of change, which is based on three imperatives: broad and deep information on nonprofits, interconnected data systems, and mechanisms for feedback and learning with constituents and partners. Right now we are focused on measuring and reporting on the first two layers, data and systems, and we are developing tools to measure results at the third feedback level.

Q: How much interest have you had in the Impact Calls? Who is your typical audience?

A: Interest has far exceeded our original expectations. We only dared to hope for a handful of participants; our last call topped 1,000 registrants! This is one of our most popular virtual events and audiences have come from nearly all 50 states and even included over a dozen countries around the world. We’ve had people from both small and large nonprofits, foundations, customers, members, the press, and many others join us for the calls. And they come from all levels of their organizations. We welcome anyone that has an interest in our organization and mission to join us of our next call on May 11.

Q: How have funders responded to the idea?

A: Our funders were important collaborators from the very outset and helped guide our initial thinking about audiences and applicability to other nonprofits. Their support has been very positive and we even had two as presenters on the calls themselves. Mari Kuraishi, our board chair and president of Global Giving, introduced the concept at our first Impact Call and we also had the pleasure of Victoria Vrana, from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, share the news of their $3 million grant to GuideStar. The Impact Call seemed like a natural place to publically announce the grant and Victoria was excited to respond real-time to questions after the announcement. The Impact Calls have even been accepted by one of our funders as a replacement for our standard required reporting narratives.

Q: What are some of the key lessons you have learned from the Impact Calls so far?

A: The first lesson we learned was that our audience really enjoyed that we made a point in each call to recap our “lessons learned” from the quarter. Being open about our mistakes was important to our organization and it turned out to resonate with our audience. Also, I was surprised by the level of courtesy from our audience. I had anticipated more scrutiny and questions about our operations and finances, similar to the more pointed dialogue on traditional earnings calls. So far we haven’t faced much examination from the audience. For now, our audience just seems happy that we are sharing real-time results and financials with them.

Q: How do you want your Impact Calls to evolve from here?

A: Improving our ability to track and quantify impact is one of our biggest challenges and mirrors the experience for many other nonprofits. As we move up the learning curve, we hope that the discussions during and outside of our Impact Calls will become much more robust. Hopefully our Impact Calls will also serve as a catalyst for a deeper discussion on the meaning of transparency. Ultimately, transparency is not the end goal. I see transparency as the first step towards, and a prerequisite for, the real end-goal of accountability: accountability to ourselves, accountability to our funders, and, most importantly, accountability to all our diverse stakeholders. The impact calls are our voluntary invitation to everyone to scrutinize us, question us, and tell us what we are doing right and what we should change. The success of Impact Calls depends less on what we do and more on what others do with what we’ve done.

Q: Would you advise other nonprofits to follow your efforts?

A: Yes!

  • About the Author:James Lum

    James Lum

    James is GuideStar's first full-time CFO, responsible for orchestrating multi-million dollar financial turnarounds in cash flow and operating income over the past two years. He responsible for coordin…

    Full Bio | More from James Lum

  • About the Author:Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…

    Full Bio | More from Alex Parkinson


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