Measurement as Learning: Executive Summary

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Author(s): Jeri Eckhart-Queenan and Matthew Forti

Published Date: April 25, 2011

Measurement is a hot topic these days in the social sector, as increasing numbers of funders want to know exactly how their money is being used, and as nonprofits undertake rigorous evaluations to prove their programs work and attract funding for growth. But one of the most important uses of measurement is too often overlooked, and that is measurement for the purpose of learning and improving performance, or performance measurement.

The benefits of performance measurement can be substantial. Among the upsides: Organizations that measure to learn often find that they’re able to do more for their beneficiaries with less money; they’re better able to adapt their programs to changing circumstances faster and more effectively; they also make better resource allocation decisions. The problem is that the idea of actually doing performance measurement scares many social sector leaders. The process seems daunting, the rewards distant and unclear.

Performance measurement needn’t be overwhelming. The experience of exemplars in the sector, from Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women initiative to the Latin American Youth Center, offers five key lessons to guide the development of an effective approach to performance measurement.

  1. Begin with the end in mind: Before even thinking about metrics or systems, it’s important to get exceedingly clear about the results the organization will hold itself accountable for. A good test of whether a nonprofit leadership team has this clarity in mind is whether its members can answer this question in a single sentence: Who does the organization serve, and what change does it seek to create?
  2. Anchor measurement in the organization’s theory of change: A robust theory of change specifies the set of programs, activities, organizational capabilities, and relationships required to achieve the outcomes the organization will hold itself accountable for. Once this theory is explicit and agreed upon, it is much easier to collect the full set of information that reveals not only whether the organization is achieving its outcomes, but also why it achieves them, and what needs to change to improve. 
  3. Create a culture of measurement: An organization’s leaders must, through their actions, embrace measurement themselves and purposefully provide staff with the time, resources, incentives, and ‘learning forums’ to do the same.
  4. Ensure all contributors benefit: If the system isn’t built to serve all key stakeholders, the result will be disappointing: beneficiaries who fail to respond to surveys, staff who don’t gather and log the data they are supposed to, grantees who provide incomplete information, and funders who collect but don’t read reports.
  5. Get better at measurement over time: With experience, organizations can identify with increasing confidence the aspects of their programs that drive results, and the corresponding measures that give them the most valuable information. They are then able to reduce the time and expense of measurement; for example, by pruning measures or adjusting sample sizes.  Organizations committed to getting better also continuously improve rigor, whether through more in-depth analyses, comparisons to peer group data, or by supplementing internal measurement with external evaluation.

Funders can play an important enabling role by helping grantees get clear on their intended impact and theory of change (see “Zeroing in on Impact” for more on intended impact and theory of change), providing grantees with the resources they need to build internal measurement capacity, and where possible, facilitating shared measurement systems. Most importantly, they can support a culture of measurement by recognizing that nonprofits can’t and don’t always deliver perfect results and therefore encouraging nonprofits to seek opportunities to learn from their data and share how they plan to improve. 

This work by The Bridgespan Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Bridgespan's Terms of Use page.


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