September 26, 2010; Source: San Francisco Examiner | It seems like a reasonable question to ask: If San Francisco is spending nearly a half-billion dollars to contract with local nonprofits to provide social services, what kind of successes are the recipient organizations achieving? Remarkably, up until now it hasn’t been asking that question so the city can’t answer that question with any certainty.

Yet, according the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco paid out some $477.5 million last year to 841 nonprofit groups for services including fighting substance abuse, treating the mentally ill and job training.

Largely in the wake of a serious budget deficit, which again this year could reach $400 million, the city has begun taking steps to do a better job tracking and monitoring expenditures as well as determining what public support is achieving. “This will help us make more strategic funding decisions and derive greater benefit from each dollar spent for San Francisco residents,” said Catherine Spaulding, an auditor with the City Controller’s Office. Maria Su, executive director of the Department of Children Youth and Their Families, puts the need for evaluations more bluntly: “we need to have more outcome-based measures.”

In addition to asking questions about the quality of the programs city money supports and what they are achieving, officials are keeping their eyes open for ways to get more bang for their buck. “I think that there are opportunities for consolidation of programs,” said Vitka Eisen, CEO of the Walden House, a drug abuse treatment center. “If five different providers provide the same service then you are supporting five different administrative entities as well. We need more services and probably less administration.” Since everyone seems to be in the mood for asking questions, here’s on from us: why did the city wait until it faced a budget squeeze to—as the San Francisco Examiner headlines—put “nonprofits under the microscope?”—Bruce Trachtenberg