The nonprofit sector is talking a lot these days about the importance of managing to outcomes, which includes the collection and use of data, most importantly outcome data, to improve programs and services.
Regularly analyzing and discussing data to continually improve nonprofit work is a key part of our recently-released Nonprofit Effectiveness Framework. In addition, organizations must gather data into actionable, easily-accessible formats, such as through the use of a dashboard.
Although many organizations are getting better at collecting outcome data, we often struggle with making the time to really reflect on our data, and figure out how we can use what we’ve learned to serve our clients and community more effectively. So how can we help ensure we are regularly digging in to our data? Though there are no quick solutions, creating a simple dashboard and blocking off time to regularly review it is a good place to start.
1. Decide on your focus.
Dashboards can be created for many different types of data. Do you want to concentrate on program level measures, or perhaps create a dashboard for fundraising or board accountability?
2. Select your performance indicators.
Indicators (also known as targets) are used to measure progress and “indicate” how successful you are in reaching your goals. Remember that when selecting indicators for your dashboard, less is definitely more. Deciding on the specific outcomes and indicators for your program goes beyond the scope of this blog, but if you would like more information on this topic, check out David Hunter’s free book. CompassPoint also has a helpful library of sample dashboard indicators.
3. Include historical data and/or key client and service characteristics.
In order to truly make your dashboard useful, it is helpful to include the context behind your numbers. How did your organization perform on this same measure last year or 6 months ago? You may also want to include program data broken out by key client or service characteristics. For example, are clients who receive 10 counseling sessions achieving greater success than those who only received four?
4. Include signal lights.
CompassPoint recommends using a simple signal light system to clearly identify areas to celebrate (green); areas to watch (yellow); and areas to act on (red). Color coding your dashboard allows you to easily scan the document and quickly turn your attention to what’s most important.
5. Host regular “How Are We Doing?” Sessions.
Once you have your dashboard developed, be sure to block off time to regularly review the data with key staff members and discuss the findings. Ask yourself, “what are the internal or external factors at work that could explain these findings?” and then brainstorm ways to respond them. For example, does staff need more training? Are there problems with the program’s design? For more information on how to run a “How Are We Doing?” session and how to make your data pay off, check out this resource from the Urban Institute.
High-performing nonprofits value the regular use of data to track progress and strengthen program implementation. So when we talk about internal evaluation, it’s not enough to create a dashboard, without creating a systematic process for discussing and using the dashboard. If you want to learn more about how you use information to adapt, innovate and improve, check out the Implementation and Improvement section of the Nonprofit Effectiveness Framework, as well as the additional resources we have available for download.