Sidestepping four common mistakes that account for why measurement efforts fail can help social sector organizations develop successful and action-oriented performance and outcome measures, save time, money, and increase impact.
Over this four-part blog series, I’ve addressed the four most common mistakes leaders make when implementing high-performance measurement cultures and the strategies to overcome them. These are based on interactions with hundreds of nonprofit and government leaders on the struggle to implement measurement cultures, observing both successful initiatives and ones that never got off the ground.
Mistake 4. Unrealistic Expectations of Change
To successfully hike to the top of a mountain, one must do the following things:
- Have faith in their ability to do it
- Establish the plan or path he is going to take
- Keep going until she gets to the top
Implementing a data-driven strategy for achieving meaningful social change is like climbing a mountain. The mountain is the social condition or problem an organization is working to improve, such as employment, health outcomes, or affordable housing. Once an organization has established their ultimate outcome (the mountain), then they must have faith in their ability to achieve that outcome; establish the plan, and to keep going until they’ve reached the goal.
Organizations often make the mistake of abandoning the plan too soon or ceasing the use of data because they don’t see the overall outcome (i.e. population level poverty or health outcomes) change in their established amount of time.
If an organization or funder abandons a program altogether, this is equivalent to stopping in the middle of a hike up a mountain merely because the journey is taking slightly more time. It doesn’t mean success is not likely; it only means that success has not yet been achieved.
Sometimes an organization will blame the outcome measure and then abandon their measurement plan, yet keep going in the same direction. This would be like throwing the map off the summit and continuing the journey to the top the mountain.
Avoid this mistake by following these three strategies:
1. Plan for when intervention truly begins.
Grant funded programs are especially susceptible to unrealistic expectations of change due to the nature of the grant award period. Projects most vulnerable to this mistake are those that are new, involve community collaboration, collective impact, and have strategies for participant recruitment. The best practice is to consider how long it will take you to get a program up and running before establishing targeted outcome measures.
An initiative cannot expect to see change in outcomes until an intervention is in place. Therefore, if it is going to take six months until the first person goes through the program and it is a twelve-month grant, be realistic about what changes are expected that six-month period. Six months may be too short to see long-term behavioral change in participants; therefore, these would be inappropriate stated goals. Instead, appropriate six-month outcomes may be increased access to support or increased knowledge and skills.
2. Understand the difference between population and performance measures.
Unless a program serves everyone in a specific community; population level outcomes are not appropriate for program management.
Population outcomes are results specific to an entire population in a specific geographical area. These are things typically collected by various government agencies or contained in census data, such as graduation rates, unemployment, average income, infant mortality rates, etc.
Performance measures are results of participants directly served by an intervention. For example, a program designed to decrease infant mortality might have the following performance measures:
- percent of participants who engaged in prenatal care
- percent of women who participated in parenting education
- increased skills and knowledge during the program
- percent of participants’ babies who were thriving at their first birthday
In this example, the program is successful if the results show it helped women access prenatal care, increased parenting skills and knowledge, and the children born into the program have positive early childhood birth outcomes. If during the same period, the overall community infant mortality rate does not change; it is not a reflection of the success of that particular program. This program is keeping mothers and babies healthy.
Knowing both performance measures and the overall community trends demonstrates how an organization has the solution to the problem. It highlights how investing in that particular program serves more people in a certain neighborhood and may eventually change the total infant mortality rate.
3. Establish measures that communicate why something is working, not just if it is working.
The combination of process and outcome measures are important to a strong, high-performance measurement culture. Good process measures help leaders understand the drivers behind successful or unsuccessful programs.
This information helps leaders to course correct when they notice undesirable short and medium-term outcomes. Understanding the “why” behind success or failure allows an organization to demonstrate learning to their funders and communicate the reasons expected outcomes are taking longer than anticipated to materialize. As a result, these organizations minimize the risk of losing funding or abandoning programs too soon.
Achieve true social impact by following these three rules.
Let your outcome and performance measures be your greatest tool on your journey to success! To learn more tips like these, check out Impact & Excellence: Data-driven Strategies for Aligning Mission, Culture, and Performance in Government and Nonprofit Organizations.
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