Making Impact Classy: Q&A with Pat Walsh, co-founder of the CLASSY Awards

The CLASSY Awards—which aim to highlight the impact of nonprofit organizations, socially-conscious businesses, and individuals engaged in charitable work—are scheduled for May 2-3, 2014 in San Diego. Since our mission at the Center is to move more money to more good, we spend much of our time identifying cost-effective programs and approaches that have evidence of impact. When we learned of the CLASSY Awards, we were interested in how the winners were picked—and Pat Walsh, co-founder of the CLASSY’s, was happy to fill us in on the process.

AW: How has the judging process for the CLASSY’s evolved over the years—from the first awards in 2009 to last year’s 2012 awards?

PW: In the first year, the CLASSY Awards Winners were determined solely by a public vote. This was a great way to gauge public opinion, but it created a disadvantage for organizations that might not have large online supporter bases. Our intention has always been to recognize organizations based on the merit of their impact, not strictly their popularity, so we’ve continually evolved the process to incorporate more objective judging criteria and perspective.

Today we have a very comprehensive process that includes several phases:

  1. First, an initial qualification through Guidestar charity checks and verification of good standing with the IRS.
  2. Second, a public vote component weighted equally with a vote from previous CLASSY Awards winners.
  3. Finally, the winners are determined by a panel of the top charitable leaders and social innovators from around the world, known as the CLASSY Awards Leadership Council.

AW: Impact, Originality, and Category Fit are three criteria used in the Regional and National judging for the 2012 Awards. Can you describe what you look for in each of those areas?

Health Well Being-winner_Free Wheelchair MissionPW: Sure. We’ve been honored to have thousands of organizations from around the country participate in the CLASSYs, and that participation led us to these three major criteria. I’ll take Free Wheelchair Mission, winner of the CLASSY Award for Health & Well Being, and show why the Leadership Council felt they exemplified those three criteria.

Impact – Has the organization achieved tangible results, and how profound is their impact relative to the scope of the problem they’re addressing?

  • FWM’s impact can be measured both by qualitative and quantitative standards. To date, they have distributed over 640,000 wheelchairs to 84 countries. Their lasting impact on international health is seen in the improved lives of those given mobility, and thus the opportunity to do the things they could not do before.

Originality – Does the organization have a unique focus, service, or history that sets them apart?

  • FWM’s model is not only unique, but their approach is scalable. They began with a basic wheelchair using elements already being produced in high volume—a resin lawn chair, a custom steel frame, and a pair of mountain bike tires. The wheelchair costs $71.88 to manufacture, ship, and distribute. This approach caught our eye because it was innovative—they were truly trying to reach as many people as possible.

Category Fit – Does the organization truly reflect the intention of the category?

  • For Health & Well Being, we were looking for an organization that has made significant impact in improving health across the globe, whether it be through direct services, research or education. FWM’s contribution to international healthcare was creating and donating free wheelchairs for the impoverished and disabled in developing nations, which aligned perfectly with the category.

AW:Collective Impact” is a recent buzzword and there are online platforms emerging (e.g. Charting Impact, PerformWell) aimed at encouraging nonprofits to become more data-driven. How can the CLASSY’s contribute to this growing landscape?

PW: The need for publicly-available, quantifiable data to measure program outputs, outcomes and “collective impact” has never been more critical for the the social sector, and it’s a need that we’re actively looking to address this year. Our goal is to work with our partners—nonprofits, social enterprises and the Leadership Council—to identify the key indices for evaluating social performance, and incorporate those criteria into the CLASSY Awards process. The result will be a unique set of publicly-available, impact relevant information on the social landscape.

AW: Can you describe the types of key indices or where you’re pulling information—perhaps list a few names of partnering organizations?

PW: The performance information we’re collecting will be unique content generated by the organizations themselves, not necessarily pulled from any specific database.

Regarding partnerships: we’re looking to solidify many of our major partnerships in the next month or two, so I’d prefer not to list any names just yet. However, feel free to reflect on our major partners from this year’s CLASSY Awards.

AW: What are your plans over the next few years for impacting the nonprofit “information economy”?

PW: There are many ongoing discussions about the need for greater transparency and data availability in the nonprofit sector, particularly as a mechanism for more informed funding decisions. Ultimately, these conversations boil down to one key point: there is no globally-accepted, standardized methodology for collecting relevant performance information on nonprofit organizations. The challenges with existing platforms is that they require extensive amounts of qualitative information, which is difficult to collect at a scalable level. The platforms that do incorporate quantitative data focus primarily on the financial data from the Form 990, which only tells a partial story of a nonprofit’s performance.

I think we have the opportunity to address these challenges by displaying the information we’re collecting in a simple, metrics-driven profile. This is a significant endeavor, particularly as you look at the various types of nonprofit programs across cause categories. It will be a continually evolving process, but our hope is that this model can provide a comprehensive perspective of the global social landscape in a way that hasn’t been done before.

AW: Can you describe the type of data you are collecting?

PW: Currently we collect quantifiable information on the problem that the organization is addressing, and the scope of their impact in a given year. We recognized that while this was a good start, it fell short of capturing the true metrics that are critical to evaluating social performance, specifically program outputs and outcomes. Therefore, this year we’re expanding on the information that we’ll be collecting.

As part of our field-building efforts to strengthen the philanthropic and nonprofit sector, we stay updated on emerging activities and  initiatives like that of the CLASSY Awards. To help donors in their decision-making, our Center continues to learn more about best practices for measuring and reporting impact. For example, we inform initiatives and working groups such as Charting Impact and PerformWell, we reference the work of Mario Morino and David Hunter, we report on how organizations are using data for greater impact in the developing world, and are currently expanding upon our work with the Social Impact Analytics Initiative.