News and analysis
May 03, 2012

Pioneering Evaluation Group Plans to Fold

Public/Private Ventures, a pioneering research and evaluation organization, has announced that it will cease operations at the end of July because of financial issues.

“We don’t believe that we have the revenue stream for a sustainable future,” says Nadya K. Shmavonian, president of the nonprofit group.

Since its founding in 1978, Public/Private Ventures—often referred to as P/PV—has conducted research and evaluation to strengthen programs designed to help young people in high-poverty communities make a successful transition to adulthood.

In 1995, the organization published a study of Big Brothers Big Sisters that documented the program’s positive effects on participants, which helped spur the expansion of mentor programs. More recent projects have focused on prisoners re-entering society, job training, and reducing youth violence.

Public/Private Ventures was buffeted by several factors that together led to its demise, says Ms. Shmavonian.

Since the downturn in the economy several years ago, it became increasingly challenging for the group to secure grants to cover its operating expenses.

At the same time, she says, it was difficult as a “mission-focused organization” to compete against larger firms such as McKinsey & Company, the Bridgespan Group, and FSG, which also conduct research and evaluation. In the past year, Public/Private Ventures laid off 21 staff members, improved its financial systems, and revised its prices to ensure they reflected the full cost of projects, but that wasn’t enough, says Ms. Shmavonian.

The organization is working to complete as many research projects by the end of July as possible and to find new homes for those it can’t finish by then.

'Underappreciated’ Work

Evaluation experts in the nonprofit world say they were surprised and saddened by the news of the impending closure.

“It’s ironic that at a time when foundations and other investors are pushing nonprofits to evaluate results, one of the best evaluation organizations in the sector is having to close down due to lack of funding,” says Cynthia Gibson, a former program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York who now runs a foundation consulting firm.

Ms. Shmavonian says her organization has been heartened in recent years by foundations’ “aspiration to fund programs that have an evidence base.”

But too often, she says, there’s a disconnect between what grant makers say they want and what they’re willing to pay for: “The long, steady work of developing an evidence base for a field or a program is sometimes underappreciated.”

As an example Ms. Shmavonian points to a study that Public/Private Ventures published in 2010 that showed participants in industry-specific job-training programs earned significantly more money than their counterparts in a control group. Getting to the point of conducting that study, she says, took many years of experimentation, preliminary research, and patient grant making.

“The ability to really know whether good money is following bad seems pretty vital,” says Ms. Shmavonian. “But I’m concerned there isn’t enough investment in the kind of research that can inform both funding and policy.”