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A Reason for Optimism: 6 Strategies To Accelerate, Improve Measurement

urbanheader09Mary Kopczynski Winkler, Senior Research Associate, Urban Institute… “Last week over 450 nonprofit, philanthropic and government leaders came together in Washington, DC at the After the Leap Conference (organized by Leap of Reason and PerformWell partners Urban Institute, Child Trends, and Social Solutions) to challenge the status quo when it comes to measuring nonprofit performance.” Read on for Mary’s observations as well as 6 strategies she proposes to move us forward.

There is no question that nonprofit organizations are facing increasing demands to measure performance and demonstrate results – yet many lack the core competencies and capacity for doing so – while the stakes for not doing so also continue to rise. As a result, many have blindly been jumping on the performance measurement and evaluation bandwagon for the wrong reasons or with an insufficient understanding about why measurement matters or how it can help an organization more effectively achieve its mission.

Some of these pressures are created by government agencies, private foundations, or other investors who rightly want to know what they are getting for their investment. But the process of simply demanding more information (or the wrong kind of information) will not, on its own, translate into information helpful to better decision-making, organizational management, or improved results for clients and communities. A more thoughtful and collaborative approach is required.

For starters, we need to have an honest conversation about what level of evidence is required for what level of investment.

Resource considerations aside for a moment, nonprofits just getting started need to first learn how to count and to capture basic information from and about clients they are serving. As programs mature and expand they should next consider a more sophisticated set of performance measures and measurement approaches – or possibly a third-party evaluation. Only after programs are fully implemented for several years and are considering some level of scaling or replication is it appropriate to contemplate the most rigorous approaches such as random-control-trials (perceived to be the “gold standard” in evaluation circles).

Much like Goldilocks, nonprofits need to figure out what level of measurement and evaluation is “just right” based on their level of development and long-term goals for growth and expansion (neither of which should be assumed in all cases).

Similarly, funders can help to elevate the capacity of nonprofits in small, medium, and large ways depending on their appetite and expectations. A few ideas follow:

Six Strategies for Helping the Nonprofit Sector Accelerate Measurement and Management Capacity

  1. Capacity: Nonprofits and funders need more help developing their capacity to measure and manage performance, but a key question is “Who should pay?” One solution is for funders to make deeper, longer term investments. Equally important, however, if for funders to help finance off-the-shelf tools and self-help strategies such as PerformWell.
  2. Coaching: Funders can also adopt a more partner-like approach with their grantees and engage in more participatory/ empowerment strategies, in which one or more consultants are paired with an organization as a guide or coach, but decisions are made by the nonprofits (ideally with input from clients or stakeholders). The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s PropelNext is one such example. Another less expensive idea could be for funders to create “communities of practice” for grantees to share ideas, challenges, new resources, and possibly even measurement systems or databases.
  3. Collaboration: There are a number of performance management consortiums around the country that have developed common measures and reporting tools. Although initially time-consuming, these groups ultimately create efficiencies around measurement, reporting, and benchmarking. A notable example is the International City/County Manager Association’s Comparative Performance Measurement Consortium.
  4. Coordination: We need to be wiser about what information we ask for and more efficient in how we use that information to inform decision-making. Funders and nonprofits should think more carefully about which data are essential to managing their performance to avoid Drowning In Data and eliminate the rest.
  5. Cultivation: We need to come up with more creative strategies and solutions for building a pipeline of nonprofit leaders who understand performance management. Every school of nonprofit management should offer a core course in this area. Not only would graduates of these programs be better equipped to hit the ground running, but they could also (while still enrolled) serve as a free or low-cost resource by helping nonprofits tackle some of the day-to-day measurement tasks.
  6. Culture: Organizational culture and predisposition toward measurement and evaluation is possibly the single-most important ingredient for success (access PerformWell’s Creating a Performance Management Culture webinar here.) A culture of continuous improvement needs to be evidenced at the top. Equally important, however, is the extent to which this culture of continuous learning and improvement is integrated at every level of the organization.

As documented in Starting a Movement Toward Higher Performing Nonprofits, the encouraging, collective efforts of nonprofit, philanthropic, and government leaders, serves as proof that rather than attempting to “outrun the bears” the sector perhaps is finally ready to embrace a movement to create a higher performing social sector.”

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