March 28, 2012

Worth a Look: PerformWell Performance Management Resource

A new online resource, Performwell, can help human service organizations answer some of the big questions in performance management.

By: Matthew Forti

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

The premise of my blog posts on Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) is that measurement is underappreciated as a tool to manage and continuously improve performance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lack of freely available online resources that help nonprofits determine what and how to measure day-to-day, compared with the abundance of resources explaining how to conduct impact evaluations and showcasing the evaluation studies nonprofits have commissioned.

So I’m delighted to report that a new online resource called PerformWell, which launched on March 6, can help human service organizations answer some of the big questions in performance management: What indicators should we measure? What surveys or assessments should we use? What best practices in program design and delivery will increase the odds of achieving the outcomes we care about?

Until now, human services organizations looking for resources to answer these questions typically needed to access experts in their fields or visit one of the many websites showcasing evidence-based programs (such as the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse or the University of Colorado Boulder’s Blueprints for Violence Prevention) and try to decipher the measurement approaches they use. But PerformWell tackles the subject head-on, bringing together highly useful knowledge from measurement leaders at Child Trends, the Urban Institute, and Social Solutions in a user-friendly interface built with performance management needs in mind.

With its tagline “Helping practitioners deliver more effective programs,” the site promises a lot. So how well does PerformWell perform?

Imagine you run a youth mentoring program. Select “Improve Service Delivery” on the site’s homepage, then “Child & Youth Development,” then “Mentoring.” Here you’ll see a list of questions that your program should answer. Select one, and you’ll call up information on best practices in mentoring programs and tools to measure these practices (such as one developed by Public/Private Ventures called Measuring the Quality of Mentor-Youth Relationships). The site also allows you to select the outcomes you care about (for a mentoring organization, one might be “Attitudes Related to Antisocial or Risky Behavior” under “Social and Behavioral Development”). Click that outcome, and you can choose among several indicators, such as “Youth Attitudes Toward Substance Abuse.” After some guidance on how to think about this indicator, the site provides surveys and assessments to measure it. PerformWell also allows you to search directly among the surveys and assessments, each of which is classified by indicator, relevant population, quality of the tool, etc.

The site also allows you to directly download any survey or assessment into Efforts to Outcomes (ETO), one of the most widely used software tools for human services organizations. This is an obviously valuable feature for those already using ETO, and a shrewd business move by ETO’s parent, Social Solutions, a co-developer of PerformWell. Unfortunately, the site does not currently support downloads to other software, or to common Microsoft applications like Excel or Access that smaller nonprofits may use. This would be a valuable feature to include.

Also, one critical performance management question that PerformWell does not directly address is which outcomes should organizations hold themselves accountable to. To see why this matters, let’s go back to our youth mentoring example. The site provides a number of viable outcomes in youth mentoring: academic performance, feelings and perceptions about self, peer relations, social or relationship skills, and a dozen more, each with anywhere from 3 to 15 indicators. Given the prevailing inclination of nonprofits to over-measure, the site misses a great opportunity to clarify the research-based outcomes for each program type—an important precondition to knowing which indicators and assessment tools to use. Ironically, much of this information already exists on the Child Trends website, in its “What Works” syntheses. PerformWell should integrate this information into what it already provides.

There is a lot more to look forward to. The site’s developers note that versions 1.5 and 2.0 will add new program types (such as civic engagement and school readiness), and also attempt to create a “community of practice” among users, which could provide a first-of-its-kind virtual meeting place for nonprofits engaging in performance management.

Overall, I believe PerformWell is the most exciting new entrant to the measurement field in years. It makes it considerably easier to tackle the challenging but crucial task of understanding what and how to measure. The site was designed for nonprofit practitioners and largely avoids the off-putting measurement jargon found on most of its peers’ sites. It is a great new resource for those measuring and managing performance at any human services organization, and will be particularly helpful for smaller organizations that do not otherwise have access to measurement expertise.

Have you spent some time on the site? I’d love to hear from you about which features you find to be most helpful and where the site can be improved.

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