How does your agency measure its success?


By John Greco
Originally published on July 26, 2012
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog
emersonHow do you measure success?
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, a redeemed social condition, or a job well done;
To know even one other life has breathed easier because you have lived —
This is to have succeeded.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been reading Emerson’s masterpiece for probably over thirty years now.
It has never disappointed.  I don’t think it ever will.  It seems to move with me over the years.
There are some phrases that I connected with right off — to win the respect of intelligent people; to leave the world a bit better by a job well done.
Then there are other phrases that, thirty years later, I’m just starting to get —to appreciate beauty; to leave the world a bit better by a garden patch.
Then there are the other phrases… which make this verse, I think — in addition to being extraordinary — enigmatic.  It is both affirmative, and humbling, at the same time.

We can read those lines, each and every one of us, and think that, yes, we are indeed successful.  It affirms.
And in other ways, we don’t measure up.  It humbles.
Maybe that’s the point.
But there’s more to do.  There’s work to do.  There’s ground to cover.We have done much.  We’re successful.
There are impacts to make.  Probably immeasurable impacts.
How do you measure success?
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Outcome measurement madness

Today’s DonorDreams post is from a guest blogger, Rose Reinert. Rose is a young non-profit professional who happily serves in the trenches and grapples with our sector’s newest challenges as they relate to data, impact, and program outcomes. When it comes to data systems, she has experience with membership management databases, financial management software, donor databases, and program outcomes measurement systems.

Outcome measurement madness

By Rose Reinert

In a former life, I served as an Executive Director of a youth serving organization. As you can imagine, as in any non-profit, the heat was on illustrating short-term and long-term impact. These efforts, of course, were to show that we were fulfilling our mission of preparing young people to be contributing citizens. Unfortunately, more often than not, we focused on short-term impact in order to keep funders and donors engaged and happy so they would renew their investment.

lotsofdata1One of those funders, who I would work at keeping happy with their investment of money and time, was my board of directors. I used to love packing my board book with tons of statistics “showing” our hard work. I would use pretty graphs and pie charts, comparisons from the previous year, week, minute.

I was so proud of those thick board packets!

Now, the tables have turned and I serve on a board of directors for another area non-profit. In a recent board meeting, as I was overwhelmed with pages of statistics I sat thinking, “So what! What does this all mean?

Oh the irony!

When I was leading my organization, we used to measure anything that moved. We were swimming in pre- and post-tests. By the time we closed out one session, we were at it again with pre-testing.

There were days, amongst the insanity, where I would have moments of clarity. I realized how many opportunities had been lost. We were caught up in the “Outcome Measurement madness“. We lost opportunities to truly, without defense, use the data to assess how we were doing and if we were moving the needle.

What would happen if we got off the hamster wheel and took a step back? What questions could we ask about our outcome measurement strategy?

One great tool that I found to help re-frame and create a strategy is a publication titled Intermediary Development Series: Measuring Outcomes at

lotsofdata2If you are just starting or if you could use a fresh look, these questions can help:

  • Where should we focus?
  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • Who is on the team, and how do we involve others in organization?
  • What resources will you need?
  • Do we need additional help?
  • What is our timeline?

Taking a step back to reframe, or create a strategy to ensure that we are measuring what matters is critical. There is no escape from outcome measurement, and there shouldn’t be. Data is critical; it guides decisions, informs investors, and points out areas for improvement. However, you can measure a lot and still have no clue.

How have you found clarity in the outcome measurement madness? How does your organization involve all levels in developing the strategy and executing it? How do you share your data with stakeholders?  Please share your experiences in the comment box below.
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Work hard. Work faster. Non-profit competition!

Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a recent post, John talked about increased competition and the “always-on, always-connected” escalating and fast pace pitch of the business world. He points to globalization as one reason for this phenomenon and concludes that it is a losing battle to fight. The only way forward is to adapt and RUN harder! I think the story from Thomas Friedman with which he starts his post really sums everything up nicely.

In non-profit terms, competition is an interesting topic to explore. If you pull a focus group of non-profit executive directors together and ask about competition, I know that the surface comments would all be about collaboration and sharing. However, having been part of conversations like these, I also know that when you go deeper into this conversation things change and you start to hear things like:

  • “That is MY donor.”
  • “They are trying to poach MY staff.”
  • “They are trying to recruit MY board member.”

Whenever I hear language like this from my peers, I have a tendency to roll my eyes and want to get on my bully pulpit and preach about how none of us can “own” a donor, volunteer, or staff person. However, I need to avoid do this because Thomas Friedman and John Greco would probably say that those are natural human reactions within the context of a competitive capitalist marketplace.

While it is this instinct that will probably save your non-profit agency, my gut feeling tells me that focusing on “the people” (e.g. donor, volunteer, staff, etc) is the wrong place to focus.  If you want to keep all of these people engaged in your agency’s mission, then focus on the core reason these individuals decided to give you money as well as work and volunteer for you — they believe in what you do!

When each of these groups of people decide to get involved with your agency, they do so because they are drawn to your mission. So, if you don’t do a good job in measuring and demonstrating your impact, then your shiny allure will likely tarnish and thanks to the phenomenon of “competition” they will be drawn to another agency and another cause.

If your non-profit wants to compete in the 21st Century for limited resources, then you need to figure out what the United Way has been saying for more than a decade. You need to demonstrate your community impact.

Of course, this is easier said that done. Measuring your agency’s “real” impact requires resources, focus, attention to detail and development of new tools and processes. Combine these requirements with the “under-resourced” nature of the non-profit sector and we circle back around to John Greco’s blog post “Running (for your life)“. I really think that John’s conclusions apply to our challenges when it comes to measuring impact:

  • We need to accept this and stop fighting. The reality is that “our cheese has moved” and donors have stopped giving money just because they like us and what we try to do with our clients. Donors now focus on results and so should we. In the final analysis, our clients deserve it.
  • “Learning” is a survival skill.
  • The early bird gets the worm. Start doing something NOW. You run the risk of “paralysis by analysis” if you think too hard about something like this. You will get farther with a “trial by fire” mentality.

If you are looking for resources on measuring impact, click here to check out a presentation that I found online. It is kind of interesting, especially when you get to the balanced scorecard and dashboard information. The AARP example caused me to rethink a few things.

If you are looking for a new book to read on the subject of non-profit competition, David LaPiana’s book titled “Play To Win” looks really interesting. I might just make this my next reading project. Click here to read an article from The Foundation Center from the authors of this book.

Do you find yourself running harder and fast? How are you maintaining your work-life balance? Are you reconsidering how you’ve done things in the past and re-engineering work processes and systems? Are you making tough choices with your chart of work and your employees’ chart of work? When it comes to non-profit competition, what are your thoughts about focusing on measuring impact? Am on-point or off-base?

Please use the comment box below to weigh-in on these issues. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Does your non-proft organization make a difference? Americans don’t think so!

While driving around doing some errands yesterday, I was listening to sports talk radio WSCR 670 AM in Chicago. One of the radio hosts was talking about how teachers make a difference in people’s lives. He knew this to be true because his mother is a teacher and every year countless high school and college kids return home, visit their favorite teachers, and tell them so.

The radio host went on to share that he used to have doubts about the impact his work has other people’s lives; however, his opinion recently changed after one of the station’s listeners emailed him. The listener was diagnosed with cancer and needed to complete a rigorous chemotherapy regiment to find his way back to health. While that treatment path is a tough road to hoe, the listener scheduled his treatments during the this radio host’s show and credits him with getting him though some very tough times.

It dawned on me that many of us strive to make a difference in someone’s life or the world around us. In fact, I think it is at the core of the human condition and the non-profit sector, which got me thinking . . .

Does your non-profit organization make a difference?

I am currently reading Dan Pallotta’s book — “Uncharitable” — and it has been challenging my non-profit belief systems. In a nutshell, he argues that the non-profit sector is extremely under-resourced and constrained by laws and cultural beliefs that don’t apply to for-profit corporations. As a result, non-profits are seen as ineffective and are in many instances actually ineffective.

Does that sound overly harsh and upsetting? In the opening pages of his book, he eggs his critics on and encourages all of us to take a look around the non-profit sector and our community and ask questions such as:

  • Why do things seem to stay pretty much the same?
  • Why have our cancer charities not found a cure for cancer?
  • Why have our homeless shelters not solved the problem of homelessness?
  • Why do children still go hunger on the streets of America?

While Pallotta ends up blaming the system (not the people in the system) and points to the lack of resources, apparently many Americans aren’t as charitable and Pallotta points that out by sharing the following information from various opinion surveys:

“A study released in 2008 by Ellison Research showed that ‘most Americans believe non-profit organizations and charities are not financially efficient enough in their work.’ A 2004 Brookings Institution study found that ‘nearly one out of three respondents expressed little or no confidence in charitable groups, and only 11% said they believe that charities do a very good job of spending their money wisely.’ Seventy percent of people surveyed in a 2008 NYU study said that charities ‘waste a great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’ of money.”

As the radio show host said yesterday, all of us wake up every morning and strive to make a difference or at least make our lives matter. Pallotta posed some tough questions, but they aren’t out-of-bounds. The surveys cited by Pallotta paint a stark picture of what many Americans think of the non-profit sector, which includes your non-profit agency. In this context, it should come as no surprise that the average annual donor turnover rate in America hovers around 50%.

So, how do you know that you and your organization is making a difference? How are you sharing that with your donors and your community? Are you seeing any difference in your donor loyalty rates? Please use the comment section to tell us what you’re measuring to prove everyone wrong. Or are you having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning because you aren’t finding that sense of satisfaction and fulfullment from your non-profit job?

Over the next few days, I will share a few more observations from Dan Pallotta’s book “Uncharitable;” however, I encourage everyone to buy a copy of the book. It will make you mad, but I think it is healthy to have your beliefs challenged every now and again.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

The Great Oz, Community Impact, and Snake Oil

I’ll never forget the day after watching “The Wizard of Oz” for the umpteenth time that I finally realized that the Wizard character was a snake oil salesman. He could sell ice to Eskimos, and he indeed sold the Tim Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow exactly what they wanted in this final scene of the movie. It is exactly for this reason that I believe non-profit organizations need to hire the “Great and Powerful Oz” to sell donors on the idea of “community impact”.

In the nonprofit community, everyone is going nuts over this idea. We need to “measure our impact” so we can demonstrate to stakeholders and donors that change is being made. Even I have gotten wrapped up in this Kansas tornado from time-to-time on this blog. Please don’t misunderstand. I firmly believe that every non-profit organization needs to create an impact agenda, measurement tools, and indicators. How else can they ever be sure that they are fulfilling their mission?

However, what I am starting to worry about is how carried away everyone seems to be getting with this idea. It gets bigger and bigger with every passing day. Here is the progression that I’ve seen recently with one national non-profit whose mission focuses on helping kids reach their full potential by offering after-school programming:

  • It started a few decades ago with a program focused on helping kids do better on their homework. Impact conversations focused around the simple idea of “are they doing better with their homework assignments now compared to before they started participating in the homework assistance program?”
  • It then morphed to High Yield Learning Activities (aka fun games with educational objectives like Math Bingo). Impact conversations evolved and started involving the idea of designing and implementing a pre- and post-test strategy to actually measure change and improvement.
  • The conversation then quickly jumped to “collecting report cards” and claiming credit for kids who participate in these after-school program and who also seem to be maintaining or improving their grades in school.
  • Today, the impact conversation is now focused on three HUGE “priority outcomes,” one of which is for their clients to “graduate from high school ready for college, trade school, military or employment”.

Again . . . you will get no argument from me that an impact agenda and outcomes measurement are important. However, at what point does it get too big and impossible to measure? At what point are we selling snake oil to donors and supporters just like the Wizard of Oz did?

There is NO WAY one non-profit organization can guarantee that even one of their clients will do better in school or even graduate all because that child walked into their facility and participated in their programs. When non-profits set an impact agenda that is wide enough to fly the space shuttle through it, then they set themselves up to be exposed. Just like the Wizard of Oz did in this YouTube clip.

The reality is that it takes one huge massive collaboration and partnership of many different non-profit organizations, schools, teachers, parents, and even taxpayers to all be pulling in the same direction if you want to achieve an impact like: “graduate X% of kids from high school who are ready for college, trade school, military or employment”.

There are so many variables that go into these HUGE impact agenda outcomes that I begin to wonder if funding one non-profit organization or one school district to do one small program with one small subset of kids makes any sense? Is it the right strategy? Or should non-profits and schools and parents and teachers be financially incented by donors to “collaborate”?

I am not smart enough to know what that looks like . . . however, I know when a dialog needs to be opened and I suspect it is this subject at this point in time.

I applaud the United Way for tackling this issue because impact assessment is the right thing for non-profits to be doing and talking with donors about. However, who is going to step in and moderate this discussion because this path feels too big and too wide for the average size agency to walk down. Perhaps, it will be the United Way that finds its voice and leads everyone down the yellow brick road to a collaboration-based solution rather than focusing on individual programs.

Is your nonprofit in the impact agenda and outcomes measurement business? What is working for you? What isn’t working? Are you honestly measuring things that demonstrate your success around mission? If so, how? Is there another road for the United Way to go down rather than funding odds and ends programs and claiming that this approach is helping close major gaps in our communities (e.g. academic failure, homelessness, joblessness, health care, etc)?

I’ve heard too many people in the last few months complain behind closed doors about this subject. It is time to bring the discussion into the open because we can learn from each other. Why not use the comment box below to start the conversation?

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847|