05/24/2011 | 3 mins |

Performance Measurement in Human Services - From Challenge to Opportunity

05/24/2011 | 3 mins |

Today's entry is written by my colleague, Matt Forti, who leads Bridgespan's practice in performance measurement. I asked Matt to share his take on how human service nonprofits can use measurement to help navigate the fiscal reckoning in ways that sustain and enhance their mission impact.

If measuring and managing performance is a complicated endeavor in the nonprofit sector, it is especially so for human service nonprofits. The barriers are many, including the kinds of clients these organizations serve to the kinds of outcomes they are trying to create to the ways their traditional funders behave. And this is truly a shame, for in this new fiscal era where human service nonprofits will be asked to disproportionately bear the brunt of government belt-tightening, measurement can be one path out of the rabbit hole.

Let's start with the problem—why is measurement (both the internal collection and use of data to drive internal learning and advance the mission, and theexternal studies to examine an intervention's impact or some other dimension) so difficult? Consider some of the stories human services' executive directors shared with us at a recent conference:

  • "We're getting audited so frequently–on average 60 times per year – that we've had to set aside office space for our government auditors. We wouldn't mind if these audits actually helped the government understand what we produced with their money, but all they care about is how their money was spent."

  • "We've had to hire three people whose entire jobs are entering data into six different government systems. If that's not bad enough, we've had to invest in our data system and re-enter all of this data because we can't extract it from any of the 6 systems."

  • "With all the rage about evidence-based practices, it seems increasingly like the only funding I can get is to implement someone else's so-called ‘proven program' in exactly the way they do. I've yet to see an RFP that asks me to adapt these practices or programs to the context my organization is operating in, or better yet, give me funding to let me measure the success of my own program and improve it."

  • "When you work with children and families that have multiple needs, access multiple systems, and require multiple years to show progress, the traditional evaluation approaches simply don't work."

  • And finally, lest you think the criticism was all leveled externally: "When we design data systems that ask our staff to enter data but give them nothing of value in return, and when we forget to translate the complexities of measurement into simple terms and tools for our staff, it is no wonder we fail."

So now the hard part—what can human service organizations do about this? For starters, their leadership teams need to believe in (and invest behind) the power of measurement as the single best lever both to deliver better services to the people they are supporting and, perhaps more importantly in these times, to reduce costs responsibly. (To see why and how, please read our white paper on Measurement as Learning). Then they need to imbue their organizations with this vision by co-developing their measurement approach with front-line staff. At the beginning they need to keep it simple and cheap—collect only that data which will help to make better decisions, and build in discrete blocks of time to reflect on the data as it comes in. With some promising data in hand, human service organizations will be in a better position to seek funders who recognize the value of measurement and reward good outcomes—whether foundations that invest in high-performing nonprofits, high net worth individuals who perhaps used measurement to grow highly successful businesses, and government agencies that are inclined to use or adopt more productive forms of performance-based contracting.

Human services organizations should also join together to make their voices heard. Changing how government agencies interface with nonprofits isn't easy, but there are plenty of reform-minded leaders at the local level looking for opportunities to do more for their communities with less.

What have you observed in your work? What are creative ways you've addressed these barriers?

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