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.  We quickly realize there are myriad complex facets to a plane’s operation that the pilot must constantly track for the plane to arrive safely at its destination.

The work you do as a nonprofit or foundation is also complex, at least as complex as any small or large business.  It could easily be 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 your goal.

Tracking mission success

I suspect the search for a helpful dashboard in philanthropic and nonprofit work 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 Lindbergh 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.

“Mission Control” – Navigating towards progress (as defined by your mission)

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.   It would show the equivalent of progress in problem reduction or asset improvement (as defined in the organization’s mission) per resource expended.   Every organization that looks outside its window sees a version of it.

Fortunately, unlike Lindbergh, we need not operate blind in a fog bank, though we don’t have such a cockpit display of “mission control” yet.  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 philanthropic or nonprofit organizations don’t know how their organization’s activities could align 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. How exactly can more staff, more money, more political capital, more effective program design let you make progress on the key indicators you could be monitoring?  When you can answer those questions, you can report to your passengers and the control tower the extent of your progress against your mission.

Complex, yes.  But successful work in all nonprofit and philanthropic missions is a complex business.  A dashboard design, if we want to improve on Lindbergh’s, has to contend with these realities.

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

Lightly revised July 7, 2020