Measuring Outcomes - a Nonprofit's Perspective
Collective impact is a frequent topic of conversation around SVP these days. There is agreement that our current community efforts aren’t providing all kids with a quality education and that a collective impact approach appears promising. But not everyone is ready to drink the collective impact Kool-Aid.
Shared measurement is a key element of collective impact. As an armchair economist and policy-wonk wannabe, measuring outcomes and tying funding to results appeals to me greatly. We need to know whether our investments of money, time and effort are paying off. And the adage – you get what you measure – is true.
A recent conversation, however, reminded me that the abstract idea of measuring outcomes is very different from being measured. In response to a suggestion that we start measuring fundraising output, maybe keep track of our number of donor visits and our funds raised from these visits, a Development Director’s response was immediate and seemingly visceral, “That will not be necessary,” he said firmly.
I was surprised by his reaction and thought more about measurement from his perspective. Perhaps he thought that the numbers would be used to judge him and his performance in a stark way that might not do justice to the whole picture.
As soon as I shifted my perspective from numbers analyst to person being measured and judged, I saw the scary side of measurement more clearly. In fact, I had a flashback to my first semester of law school. After hours of studying and endless lectures about how good grades were essential to obtaining jobs and clerkships, first semester grades finally became available. I grabbed my envelope from the registrar and ran into a bathroom stall. Not only did I not want anyone to see my grades, I didn’t want anyone to see my reaction to my grades.
For nonprofit staff, I imagine, outcome measurements can seem much, much worse. Donors, board members and competing organizations will see the measurements, and surely offer opinions on what went wrong and how to do better. I can’t imagine a group of people sitting around and second-guessing my decision to attend a basketball game instead of spending the time studying torts or debating whether I made a strategic error in not taking property pass/fail. It would be potentially humiliating to sit there while others discussed my weaknesses and mistakes.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t measure outcomes or I wouldn’t have benefited from the insight of others. Only that we should have more empathy for those being measured, especially as we begin to implement measurement and analyze the results.
To help better understand the nonprofit staff perspective, I decided to take the thought experiment one step further. I came up with a personal dashboard, a set of benchmarks that could be used to measure my personal performance. I shuddered as I imagined a committee of outspoken, driven, performance-oriented people developing these outcomes. They would want to see stretch and would want to measure areas where they suspected underperformance. And they would probably want to see a high success rate, say 80 percent. The dashboard would expose my shortcomings and the committee would starkly discuss how I could get back on track.
My dreaded dashboard might look something like this:
1. Nutrition. Maximize fruit and vegetable consumption. Minimize chocolate and baked goods consumption. Switch from coffee and cocktails to green tea and water.
2. Exercise. Earn a minimum of 3000 Nike Fuel points per day. Attend bootcamp, jog or jump rope on a regular basis. Stretch after every tennis practice or match.
3. Promptness. Respond to all email within 24 hours. Arrive at all meetings, appointments and pick-ups on time.
4. Housekeeping. Maintain a clean kitchen, including washing dishes immediately. Complete long-term maintenance projects in a timely manner, including window washing, gutter cleaning and tree trimming.
5. Parenting. Fully engage in homework assistance as appropriate, including 20-30 minutes of reading at bedtime every day. Maintain a calm demeanor at all times.
6. Volunteer projects. Substantially advance at least one project per day. Make all fundraising calls in a timely manner.
There is no doubt that I could improve on each of these areas and that keeping track of my performance would focus my attention on these goals. I also know it would require a lot of courage and strength.
What would be on your dashboard? How would you feel about public discussion of the results?