Dashboards for Philanthropy / #2

My first post on “dashboards for philanthropy” has been the most visited of all my posts, and it leads the Google hit parade on that subject.  Because there’s interest in it, I’m exploring it further.

So far we’re  at the concept stage, though I’m tinkering with the instrumentation, using an airplane dashboard as my main analogy. You know how when you board a commercial plane you can sometimes peer into its cockpit?  Most of us, I suspect, marvel at its complexity, and then realize there are myriad complex facets to a plane’s operation the pilot has to be constantly informed of for the mission to be successful.

The work you do as nonprofits or foundations is also complex, at least as complex as any small or large business, and maybe as complex as flying a plane.   You know that if you take your eye off just one thing, it can turn into crisis quickly, or at least distract you from straight-ahead.

I suspect the search for a helpful dashboard in community change arenas is motivated by the wish to stay on top of all the mission-critical aspects of your organization, pretty much simultaneously.  The commander of the ship needs to know certain things…

Consider these: at a minimum, you have to contend with the details of staffing and administration, to keep  your organization’s doors open, to stay on top of its growing list of short- and long-term tasks, and to grow the organization.  That’s one set of displays to monitor.

The organization also needs resources – financial, human, informational – and be able to deploy them appropriately in the service of gaining on your mission.  A second set of gauges relates to resource levels and their distribution,  flowing into something like “engaged horsepower.”

A third set would relate to the supportive context you’ve created to sustain your flight — relationships, partnerships, networks, and political capital you need to engage as you advance.

Fourth,  you need the analog to a flight plan, a theory of action and set of activities (aka “program” or “strategy”) that mixes the above forces and moves you down the road, not just accelerating down  the runway but actually allowing you to gain on the problem you’ve declared in your mission or initiative.

Of course, Charles Lindberg just looked out the window, scraping ice off with his hand, knowing little about his situation until he landed in Paris (his intended destination, miraculously) unaided in navigation except a compass.

And how will we in the nonprofit and philanthropic activist world know if we are “getting there?”  In my first post on this subject, I lamented that existing dashboards may tell you how much fuel you have and how fast you’re going, but they won’t help you navigate to a destination – until you have the philanthropic equivalent of a GPS.

The metric most in demand is the one that displays how your organization’s work moves a needle that perhaps moves another needle in one of the ways you’ve declared important in your mission statement.  A good dashboard would show something like a progress-o-meter, the big needle in the display above.   We need the equivalent of problem reduction (or opportunity enhancement) per resource expended.  That’s a distant ideal for the field of metrics, but for the field of accountability, the demand for better communication of “progress” is close at hand.  Every organization that looks outside or upstream for resources faces it.

Fortunately,  we need not operate blind in a fog bank.  What if we navigated toward a set of key social indicators?   Couldn’t those readings guide our efforts?  Homing beacons exist in the form of key social indicators (local measures of poverty, and wealth; of increased job opportunities, and unemployment; of recidivism, and successful returns to community life, etc) that are available from government agencies and universities throughout the country.

There’s still a large gap in our navigational systems – too many organizations don’t know how their organization’s activities conceivably connect up with readings on relevant social indicators.  The goal must be to narrow that gap, first in the rhetoric and then in our ability to notice and measure progress.

The value of such a complex dashboard is that it can stimulate and enhance your strategic thinking. What exactly is to be done with more staff, more money, more political capital, more effective program design that allows you to meet up with key indicators being monitored out there?  When you can answer those questions, you can tell yourself and others if you’re making progress on your mission.

Complex, yes.  But successful work in all our areas of social life that need upgrading is a complex business.  A dashboard design, if we want to improve on Lindberg’s, has to contend with these realities.

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Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / September 4, 2012