The Next Best Thing

Tomorrow, Apple will lift the veil on its newest product, most likely a new iPhone1. If past behaviour is any indicator, there will be much discussion and many questions asked in the immediate aftermath: is this a good product, should people buy it, is Apple being forward-thinking or foolish in removing the headphone jack (if the rumours are to believed), and so on. One topic that likely won’t come up, though, is what the company will do with the profits it realizes from the new phone and its other products.

What we don’t ask of Apple or other for-profit companies stands in notable contrast to the questions and restrictions imposed on non-profit organizations when they receive funding. I won’t belabour the general point here, as others have written amazing pieces dismantling these harmful ideas: as one example, Vu Le provided a hilarious-because-it’s-absurdly-true example of trying to run a bakery if we brought to bear the overhead and sustainability myths that non-profits routinely face. More specific to my focus on evaluation and research, Ann Rosenfield (hat tip to Joe Travers) pointed out that donors should actually want to pay for a charity to collect and analyze data about their programs, spend time understanding local trends, and develop and test new approaches to fulfilling their mission. Although these dollars may not go directly towards the front-line program or service, they ensure that the organization continues to operate effectively and is prepared for what the future will bring.

When buying any kind of gadget from a for-profit company, it’s understood that the amount we spend will be used for more than just the product itself. In fact, I think we would be surprised and maybe even angry if companies like Apple didn’t spend at least some money on improving their products and developing new ideas. In the non-profit world, our R&D work (which includes evaluation for me) is often seen as an afterthought, not just by donors and funders but by those working in the field. Sure, we may never see our work featured and feted like a new technological marvel: instead, though, we can develop new ways of creating positive change that save lives, dismantle systems of oppression, and generally improve quality of life for individuals and communities around the world. To reach that potential, though, our sector as a whole needs to invest the time and resources necessary to improve what we’re already doing, understand what’s coming over the horizon, and develop our own “next best thing”.

  1. And possible a new Apple Watch, depending on which prognosticators you want to believe.

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