Why Measurement in Your Nonprofit is Failing You









In his blog post “Why Your Analytics are Failing You” on Harvard Business Review’s blog, Michael Schrage discusses the fact that no matter how much your company invests in analytic capability, you won’t reap the full benefits of that investment if it’s not aligned with the existing culture and decision making processes.  His intended audience is for-profit companies, but I can’t help thinking that his thesis is even MORE critical for non-profit organizations. 

Although non-profits are feeling increased pressure to achieve measurable outcomes, we generally don’t operate under the do-or-die market pressures that drive innovation and excellence in profit-driven companies.  The cultures within most non-profits, and the incentives that drive them, have historically not been conducive to data-driven decision making. Therefor, in order to create organizations that authentically use data to drive excellence and innovation, we need to make sure that whatever measurement and management systems we are trying to create are aligned with the organization’s culture and behaviors.

Mr. Schrage points out “the quality of big data and analytics, ironically, mattered less than the purpose to which they were put.”  I don’t find this surprising in the least – in fact, I wouldn’t expect it otherwise. Any decision maker knows that it is better to have imperfect information before a decision making deadline than it is to have perfect data after a decision has already been made. Nonprofits who put too much emphasis on collecting and analyzing data, and not enough on understanding how and when people use the data are setting themselves up for frustration.  Even Ella Fitzgerald knew it when she sang “t’aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results.” To modify Ella’s words slightly, t’aint only what you measure, it’s the way you use that information, that’s what gets results.  If your measurement system is failing you, it is possible you spent too much time creating a ‘perfect’ measurement system, and not enough time thinking through how that data is used.

Mr. Schrage also says that analytics were most productive when they were used to change behaviors rather than to solve problems.  For non-profit measurement systems to be effective in driving towards excellence, they can’t be used merely to identify problems and fix them, but to facilitate critical thinking, conversation, and learning.  It’s the difference between asking “What are the areas I need to fix for the upcoming audit?” and asking “How can we work together to become the best program that has ever existed?  And what do we mean by ‘best’?”  Measurement is most powerful when it becomes a tool for reflection and learning, not a tool to prop up existing expectations or ways of doing business. Rather than focus on the problems, focus on how you are identifying and fixing problems.  It is about creating a culture of learning and critical inquiry, not about sticking with the status quo.

I hear a lot of lip service paid to ‘outcomes measurement’ in the sector, but most of what I see falls far short of the true spirit of organizational improvement.  To create an organization that truly challenges itself to become excellent, it takes more than just a database and monthly management reports; it takes transformational change in how an organization measures its performance and how it changes individual and organizational behaviors to push the organization even higher.

Nonprofit measurement is not about measurement, it’s about creating a culture of excellence.


1 thought on “Why Measurement in Your Nonprofit is Failing You

  1. Just came across your blog as I put together a course on demonstrating impact, outcome measurement and quality assurance. You hit the nail on the head in a number of posts. Your points here about what you us it for is so often missed, seen as a hoop to jump through by too many.

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