Sidestepping four common mistakes can help social sector organizations develop successful, action-oriented performance and outcome measures that save time, money, and increase impact.

Creating high-performance measurement cultures in the social sector leads to greater efficiency, effectiveness, revenues and overall impact. These are cultures where decisions are based upon real-time measures related to an organization’s desired outcomes (i.e. client’s change in behavior or improvement in indicators of family stability).

Even with these benefits, the majority of government and nonprofit organizations are struggling to implement these cultures.  Per research in Impact & Excellence, less than 25% of social sector organizations have adopted these cultures.

If these cultures make the difference in terms of true social change, why are so few organizations measuring the things that matter?  Based on interactions with hundreds of nonprofit and government leaders about the struggle to implement measurement cultures, I’ve identified four of the most common mistakes and the strategies to overcome them.  These come from years of observing both successful initiatives and ones that never got off the ground.

  1. Overlooking uniqueness in short-term outcomes
  2. Underestimating fear
  3. Devaluing follow-up and action
  4. Unrealistic expectations of change

I’ve been addressing each of these four themes over this four-part blog series.  Together, they provide ways for social sector leaders to get more from their measurement efforts as these organizations face challenges ranging from increased client demand to the uncertainty of essential funding streams.

Mistake 3. Devaluing follow-up and action

When it comes to selecting the perfect outcome measures for a social sector organization, there is a delicate balance between choosing what is easy to collect and what is most meaningful for action.  On one hand, there is value in choosing measures that already exist and an organization may be collecting.  On the other hand, every social sector organization is unique (see part I: overlooking uniqueness).  What others may be using might not align to the specific results an organization’s efforts achieve for their clients.  Also, most organizations are not currently measuring outcomes of their activities; they are only collecting measures of outputs (i.e. people served, training classes held).  See Outputs vs. Outcomes for the distinction between the two.

The answer is straight forward – focus on the “so what?” when selecting your success measures.  Tie the selected measures to the potential action and changes the organization plans to take once the information is available.  The difference between the organizations whose measures propel them forward to greater social impact and those whose measurement activities are a waste of resources is how well the measures improve decision making and communication. Good measures will provide insights on how to improve operations to increase impact while providing compelling information regarding the organization’s impact and social return on investment. Good measures help communicate the organization’s impact and value while inspiring funders, partners and other stakeholders to further engage with the organization.

A community housing nonprofit agency got this balance drastically wrong when they chose an off-the-shelf case management software before doing the internal work to select their desired outcome measures.  The organization selected this popular tool because they knew it had a good reputation and others in their field were successfully using it.  The leaders believed the software would produce valuable insights and make measuring and communicating their impact easier.  However, after spending over $50,000 on licenses and implementation they realized the tool didn’t provide them any data of real value and ended up cancelling their contract with the software vendor.   This left staff believing that measures were not important to the organization’s success and growth.

By contrast, a community-based nonprofit assisting people with disabilities underwent a year-long process strategically selecting their best outcome measures.  They not only examined what they were already collecting, but determined what measures would be most important to track to improve their services and communicate their impact to their funders.  They developed a plan with a mixture of success measures that examined how well they were treating clients with respect, successfully linking people to needed services and support; increasing consumers’ independence, building important partnerships in the community, and influencing public policy.  In addition, they were examining the cost per success and their social return on investment.  In that first year, they implemented new surveys and processes to answer these questions.  They dedicated a staff member to oversee the measurement and analysis of the data while training the staff and board on the importance of these measures.  They determined a plan for how the measures were going to be used.  The first year they collected baselines for each of these measures.  The second year they began to look at trends and set new goals of impact.  Their board members are now more engaged and love telling the impact of the organization to others.  Similar organizations are looking to them for leadership on how to come together with a larger collective impact story to increase their advocacy efforts.

Select Measures that Matter

High performance measurement cultures are created when leaders use measures aligned with different elements of the organization’s mission. The measures let leaders know how well programs and services are operating and the extent those who are served are better because of the services provided by the organization.  Good measures align with the key funder’s mission.

When we work with our clients, we ask them to brainstorm all possible measures that could be used to communicate their impact and value.  This typically results in 30 or more possible measures.  To help them decided which ones are best, we have them answer the following questions.

  1. Why do you think this is the best measure?
  2. How will you collect the data?
  3. How timely is the information?
  4. What will you do with this information once you know it? What action will you take?
  5. How will this tell your story? Who will care about this measure?
  6. How will you communicate this measure once you know it?

If a leadership team can answer these six questions and they are still excited about a measure, it is most likely a good one.  Using these six questions will ensure an organization is using the best outcome and impact measures to tell their story and improve operation.  It also becomes the basis for the follow-up and action plan once the measures are implemented and data are collected.

Start the process today!

Are you looking to select the best measures for your organization?    Our Quick Start Performance Measurement System is an efficient and effective solution designed to help social sector organizations measure and communicate their impact and value!  In this cost-effective program we do all the hard work while you have all the fun on the road to greater accountability and impact.  Contact us today to schedule a call to explore if this is the best program for you and your organization.

Don’t forget to visit next week!  Learn how the unrealistic expectation of change is derailing your measurement efforts and what you can do about it.