July 9, 2012

Measurement that Benefits the Measured

By: Matthew Forti

(This blog post originally appeared on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website.)

At last check, US private-sector companies spent more than $25 billion on market research, much of that devoted to understanding the preferences of their consumers. With consumers controlling the purse strings, even a slight “miss” in understanding their preferences can put a company at risk. Meanwhile, in the social sector, those who “consume” and those who “pay” are typically two different entities. Incentives for nonprofits, therefore, are distorted: Organizations can thrive by getting really good at understanding the needs and desires of their government or private funders, while “consumer” perspectives and involvement take a backseat.

Nowhere has this been truer than in measurement. Nonprofits spend countless hours catering to funders—tracking information funders want, developing dashboards and reports that satisfy funder requirements, or inputting reams of data into government systems. Yet, new research suggests that nonprofits devote little time in their measurement to engaging constituents—the individuals, families, or communities they seek to benefit.

What does it mean to engage constituents in measurement, and more importantly, what does it get you?

Our research points to three forms of engagement—voice, co-creation, and ownership—that can help nonprofits adapt programs to 1) better reflect the needs and strengths of their constituents, and 2) enhance the role constituents play in their own progress. Depending on the nature of their work and the type of change they seek, organizations may find one or more of these forms useful.

Constituent voice

Nonprofits gather lots of data from those they serve, including demographics, program participation rates, and changes in knowledge and behaviors. But while this data is necessary to monitor progress, it is insufficient to refine and improve programs. A healthy dose of constituent voice, gathered regularly through focus groups, ethnographic research, or other means, is often a critical missing ingredient.

Many nonprofits report gathering constituent feedback, but our research suggests that few constituents believe these techniques sufficiently influence the actions organizations take. If your constituent feedback doesn’t result in a deep understanding of challenges, strengths, aspirations, histories, and heritage, and if your leadership isn’t hearing it directly, chances are it won’t do you much good.

Connected by 25 (Cby25), a Florida-based nonprofit founded to help foster care youth reach adulthood successfully, provides a great example of an organization that is authentically paying attention to its constituent voice. After witnessing years of dismal educational outcomes for foster care youth, Cby25 decided to conduct focus groups to understand why so many of them drop out of school. The stories and recommendations that the young people shared led to a new idea: a guidance counselor versed in helping foster care youth navigate the special problems they face—particularly the challenges of switching schools so often during their teen years. Cby25’s principal funder successfully pitched the idea and provided funding to a local school system to try it out. Within two years, high school graduation rates for foster youth rose by more than 50 percent, and the percentage of these students performing at or above grade level almost doubled. The school system has since decided to permanently fund the position.

Constituent co-creation

Ask nonprofits why they measure impact, and you’ll hear a litany of answers: “It helps our leadership make better decisions,” “It attracts more funders to our model,” “It convinces others to adopt our program.” But few talk about how measurement can help educate and motivate the people they serve by tracking their progress and engendering greater responsibility for their own improvement.

Friendship Public Charter School’s work to engage students in measurement provides a powerful example. After steadily improving academic outcomes from its founding in 1998 to 2006, the organization’s performance began to plateau. As COO Patricia Brantley and her team searched for ways to generate further improvements, they realized teachers weren’t accessing real-time data (on unexcused absences, discipline infractions, interim grades, etc.) to reflect and improve upon their work. After redesigning Friendship’s performance measurement system to provide teachers with the data they needed, Friendship went further, and co-opted students to play a role in their own progress. “We expect students as young as kindergartners to be able to explain and provide evidence of their progress to their teachers, their peers, and their parents. Once students have demonstrated sufficient mastery of these skills and behaviors, they are introduced to grade-level-appropriate student dashboard tools to assist them in tracking their progress and setting more ambitious goals for themselves.” Brantley describes these efforts as well worth the investment: Since implementing this new approach to performance measurement, strong increases in reading and math proficiency have resumed.

Constituent ownership

Another way to engage constituents in measurement is to actually give them the responsibility of determining what and how to measure the impact an organization is having on their lives. For organizations that want to build capacity and confidence in constituents to solve their own problems, transferring ownership for measurement can be a powerful component of the program model itself.

Take the Family Independence Initiative (FII), an organization that facilitates social connections among low-income families of the same ethnic background. FII uses data collection as a tool for change—families set their own goals and measures, collect and report data into FII monthly, and use FII’s web-based system to monitor their own progress over time and in the context of their group. Though families are in the driver’s seat, FII can also use the data (which they verify through pay stubs, report cards, and the like) to demonstrate aggregate outcomes in areas such as earnings, savings, homeownership, and education, helping support FII’s goal of influencing the field more broadly.

For organizations that currently aren’t engaging constituents in measurement, thinking through how to more authentically solicit their input and voice is a good place to start. Enabled by advances in technology, such as social media and user-rating systems, increasingly constituents expect to share their voice, whether or not you ask for it! Once their voices are heard and their feedback integrated, think through whether strategies such as co-creation and ownership might be appropriate, given the work you do and the outcomes you are trying to achieve.

What are your experiences engaging constituents in measurement? What have been the benefits and challenges?

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