Implementing, Modeling and Managing a Measurement Culture

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, the nonprofit social services sector – from mental health clinics to food banks – will still be challenged to meet an increased need with fewer resources and limited funding.  Savvy nonprofits have already moved toward an evaluation culture, embracing logic models and short-and-long term impact data to illustrate why (and how) their programs work. Organizational innovation and unique program accomplishments are practically prerequisites for making a successful connection with alternate funding sources, including corporate partnerships, yet nonprofits are still struggling to identify and quantify their impact on clients, the community, and the overall condition they work to modify.  Performance measurement, logic model and outcomes are not new or faddish terms, so why the hesitation?

The report, Tough Times, Creative Measures: What Will it Take to Help the Social Sector Embrace an Outcomes Culture? from the Urban Institute, came out of a Fall 2011 event that brought together leaders from the government, nonprofit, philanthropy, and business sectors to discuss the issue of data-driven management in social and human services and the challenges related to successfully utilizing a performance management system.  Some of the challenges identified:

The difficulty of turning away from the organization’s immediate needs to plan and implement a measurement system. No matter how small the agency, the demands on the executive director’s time and talent are immense. Writing up an organization-wide evaluation strategy and implementation plan, including models, indicators, instruments, and data collection plans is an enormous amount of work – and I haven’t mentioned the pilot testing, analysis and reporting aspects.  The role of director should be to communicate progress and needs with the board as they guide the agency through this kind of culture change, not create every step of the process.

The reality that  sometimes the best outcomes may not be rewarded.  Conspiracy theories and snarky excuses aside, well-crafted stories, high profile connections and nonprofits with missions or target audiences that are more interesting or appealing than your own may have an easier time selling their effectiveness. That said, incomplete or inaccurate information on program impact won’t help remedy the situation.

Some nonprofits may be waiting for the trends to flip and the tides to turn. Why move heaven and earth within your organization to embrace a culture that may seem like a phase (especially to long-time employees who have seen edicts from funders come and go).   Buy-in for outcomes tracking and reporting  may be based on acceptance of the  hoop-jumping norms, not the real value of performance measurement to the overall health of the organization.  It is time for boards and directors to be brave and commit to an organizational culture change – but be prepared to illustrate how it will be  beneficial for staff and (more importantly) clients.

In response to these and other impediments, I mean realities,  the symposium attendees identified strategic areas that would have the most impact in encouraging and implementing a data-centered culture: human and financial capital –  the tenacity and the tab, creative advocacy – sector giants to back this shift,  and ready-to-use systems and tools so directors don’t have to start from square one.  How can nonprofit leaders better model and manage  a measurement culture?   Why are some nonprofits hesitant to embrace this shift?