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Clay County commissioner Jon Evert (left) and Extension educator Ryan Pesch depend on research-based claims to craft a public value message.

Extension helps nonprofits make case for public good

From eNews, March 6, 2008

At first glance, they appear to have nothing in common: a nonprofit sexual-assault coalition and a county program to assist homeowners with shoreland management. On closer inspection, however, the similarities become clearer. Both provide services that benefit individuals. They also share a common problem: explaining to lawmakers and the public at large how those services work for the common good.

That's where Extension's Public Value Program comes in. What exactly is public value? It is the benefit the community accrues apart from the direct benefits that individuals in public or nonprofit programs receive. For example, financial security education benefits participating employees, but also benefits other Minnesotans because individuals who plan now for later life place fewer demands on limited public resources in the future.

The concept is based on public finance principles: how communities allocate resources and what role public and nonprofit programs play in that equation. Laura Kalambokidis, an associate professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, developed the Public Value Program. The curriculum is available from Extension educators across Minnesota to help public sector and nonprofit leaders evaluate and articulate the public value of their programs.

The Public Value Program is especially relevant given the pressure to demonstrate accountability and attract scarce funding. "Many organizations and local governments are in a real pinch when it comes to financing their work," says Ryan Pesch, an Extension educator based in Fergus Falls. "Decision makers need to sort out which programs benefit the common good the most."

Pesch taught a Public Value workshop last year to professionals whose expertise ranged from natural resource management to social services programming. The issue that cropped up time and again: the need to show far-reaching benefits.

Being able to make the case for the common good offers a powerful tool for gaining support (and funding).

"It's so simple," says Jon Evert, Clay County commissioner for the past 13 years, "but we need to be able to show the common good and public value."

How does a program prove it has public value?

To determine the public value of a program, participants answer a series of questions:

* Does the program narrow an information gap?

*Does it address a crucial concern about fairness?

* Does one person's participation benefit people who do not participate?

* Does one person's participation reduce costs for others?

* Does the program improve upon the market outcome?

One problem is that public misperception often masks the true extent of a program's reach. Evert offers a case in point. A farmer for nearly three decades, he has observed firsthand the tradeoff rural local governments face when deciding whether to hire a local feedlot officer. "Providing someone to help a farmer will help that particular family," he notes. "But in a larger sense, you're going to benefit the whole community by making sure the laws for feedlot management are followed. By helping an individual farmer be compliant, it helps everyone."

Sounds simple, but as Pat O'Connor, former Hennepin County auditor/treasurer and a longtime Extension advisor, points out, it's a complex issue faced by programs strapped for time and resources. "From my perspective within county government, we are very focused on things we are doing, and so many times we fail to see the bigger picture," O'Connor says. "This is giving us a more disciplined approach to programs and policies."

In the case of nonprofits, the picture is further clouded by the fact that many agencies provide services--often directly to individuals-- that are outsourced by government.

"More and more, nonprofits are a key pathway government uses for accomplishing public objectives," says Laura Williams, program coordinator for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Those of us working in nonprofits haven't always known how to explain that what we do is more than a special interest to some or of benefit only to those we serve directly."

Says Pesch: "Talking in the terms of public value or the common good is different from the typical pitch to decision makers. If you can make the case for how a program benefits a typical citizen who has nothing to do with the program, you have passed the true test."

But more than that, it's ensuring that public sector programs are doing what they are truly meant to do--contributing to the common good.

For more information or to set up a training session, visit U of M Extension.