I started my career in the nonprofit field nearly 20 years ago. I worked in the basement of our founder’s house doing everything from leading programs, writing curriculum, hiring staff, applying for grants, and collecting and analyzing data. I had trays and trays of floppy disks stored in filing cabinets carefully organized by subject and year. Data analysis wasn’t in my title, nor were the many other duties I had, but I was the first performance measurement analyst at WINGS for kids.
Over the years, WINGS progressed with the times and moved on to collecting and processing our data in Excel. Like so many other organizations, we stayed in the world of Excel for a number of years. And like so many other organizations, the responsibility of data collection and processing shifted from one person to another who always had job titles that never included anything about data.
Focusing on day-to-day operations and logistics, making sure kids showed up and were having fun, ensuring staff were implementing the curriculum well, and collecting data that was responsive to the needs of funders were all priorities. However, with no streamlined internal processes to track and measure everything, we found ourselves on a cycle of over-collecting, over-analyzing, and over-burdening ourselves to take actionable steps in meaningful time frames.
The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s new report, Assessing to Achieve High Performance, summarizes the landscape in which hundreds of nonprofits find themselves. The piece aptly calls out the disconnect that while the overwhelming majority of foundation leaders say they provide support, the overwhelming majority of nonprofit leaders say they aren’t receiving it.
Funders have indeed assisted nonprofits in achieving high performance through rigorous applications and deep and meaningful questions that force an organization to evaluate their qualitative and quantitative results. Unfortunately, nonprofits need more guidance and deeper support. Organizations know what they need to review and collect to make the most impact. The problem is time and resources, because too often nonprofits are like us, and they are buried in data.
While we were once similar to the majority of the organizations in this survey, today we are in the minority. We have implemented a robust performance management system called “Efforts to Outcomes,” invested in a dedicated performance measurement analyst, sought consulting services from Bridgespan to refine our internal processes in data collection and reporting, and undertaken a randomized control trial in partnership with the University of Virginia through a Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences grant. Currently, approximately 12 percent of our budget goes toward assessing performance.
Three key factors have led us on a pathway to achieving high performance, which I hope will serve as guidelines for other nonprofits and provide meaningful ways that foundations can further support nonprofits in this area.
Theory of Change
We created a Theory of Change and have stuck with it. While this sounds easy, it was one of the most arduous tasks our organization has ever taken and likely the most critical step we took to be where we are today. The process of developing a Theory of Change required us to deeply reflect on our programming, our future goals, and the impact we intended to create. By clearly defining our short, intermediate, and long-term goals, we have refined our assessment tools and data collection to focus on the specific outcomes that matter most.
Investment in Organizational Capacity
Almost eight years ago we invested in a robust performance management system called “Efforts to Outcomes,” produced by Social Solutions. The system provides us the ability to store enormous amounts of information and easily develop necessary reports to accurately assess real-time results. Last year, we also hired a full-time performance measurement analyst whose position is dedicated to data analysis and review. By building our organizational capacity we satisfied a real need, and equally as important, we signaled to the organization that we value data and are striving to be a high-performing nonprofit. Our ability to invest in this capacity was made possible by one of our funders, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, through a social innovation fund grant. Like the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, they have shined in their ability to truly work alongside their grantees and provide necessary organization-wide support.
Adopt a Performance Culture
For years we focused on the singular question — are we achieving our intended outcomes? This question alone, however, limited our focus to just numbers — enrollment levels, attendance rates, academic and behavioral percentages. We want to move beyond the numbers and evaluate all aspects of the organization that impact our ability to achieve our intended outcomes. We’ve shifted to asking ourselves, are we a high-performing nonprofit? This question allows us to evaluate all aspects within our organization which directly and indirectly affect our ability to impact kids’ lives. The Performance Imperative, produced by the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community, has helped us create a performance culture within the organization.
Based on CEP’s report, we know that nonprofits collect and use data. We now need to move beyond the numbers and assist nonprofits in becoming high-performing organizations with the assistance of foundation support.
Bridget Laird is the CEO of WINGS, an education program that teaches children how to behave well, make good decisions, and build healthy relationships, and has offices in Atlanta, Charleston, and Charlotte. Follow WINGS on Twitter at @WINGSforkids.