Dashboards for Philanthropy

Rear view mirrors?

Dashboards in philanthropy

Dashboards for philanthropy are all the rage. Dashboards have taken over the corporate sector as part of the “business intelligence” movement.  Websites such as Tableau or Phocas have sprung up offering displays of dials and gauges that are said to reveal the financial health of the company.   And most nonprofit and philanthropic boards are lots of people from the business sector.  It’s only natural, then, that boards of foundations and nonprofits want to try these in the philanthropic sector.  Fans of dashboards, whether for profit or not-for-profit say dashboards will help them see where they’re going and how to get there, like with a car dashboard. The idea is that they’re supposed to tell the organization “where it’s going,” just like a car dashboard does.   

Business intelligence isn’t the same as philanthropic intelligence.

In the business world, dashboards are all about the bottom line.  They show performance in the areas of a business’ operations that contribute to the bottom line.  Readings on a set of small indicator needles allegedly connect to the big needle, profit.  At least that’s their goal, though it’s not easy to connect all those dots.  The linkages connecting all those smaller needles to the Big One aren’t specified in most business models.   And what’s not to like about cool infographics?

But the bottom line in the philanthropic sector isn’t about profit.  It’s not monetized, either.  In my book, the bottom line among both foundations and nonprofits is about “progress with the organization’s mission.”  “Progress” is the equivalent of “financial profit.”    Business intelligence in the philanthropic sector should reveal something about “progress with the organization’s mission,” It doesn’t matter, IMO, what the particular issue or mission is – “making progress” is the name of the game, where the rubber meets the road, etc etc.  “Making progress” is what philanthropic investment is for.  “Progress” is the return on that investment.

Unfortunately, most dashboards I’ve seen just cram a bunch of info that’s already in the annual report into pretty graphs, pie charts, histograms, sparkling line graphs and such.  There’s no sign of how it all adds up, or whether you’re on track to someplace or not, or how quickly you’re approaching a hazard.   A useful dashboard in philanthropy would show these things, at least take a stab at it.  And a back-up light!  All Charles Lindbergh had when piloting across the North Atlantic was an ice-scraper to let him look out the front windshield.

Dashboards don’t tell you what progress you’re making or what to do next.

The problem is, a car dashboard doesn’t tell you where you’re going, or even where you are.  A car dashboard tells you how many miles you’ve gone, and your current rate of speed, and how much fuel remains.  But none of that reveals direction or ground remaining.  There might also be a few “idiot lights” to let you know your car is overheating and about to explode, of if your tires are low – helpful, for sure.  There are comfort meters to regulate the air temp, and AV signals to tell you where your entertainment is coming from.  These are all useful, and undeniably fun, but they say nothing at all about where you’re headed or even where you are.  Unless you’re talking about a GPS, a relatively recent space-age addition to a car dashboard that is a genuine navigational aid that actually does tell you where you are in relation to a chosen destination.  Of course, it’s still up to you, the human driver, to punch in where you want to go, because it doesn’t know until you tell it.

What do we see on contemporary philanthropy dashboards?  The growth of assets over time, broken down by type.  The number and types of funds established, by year.  The number and amount of grants made, by year and type.  And a few other things like staff size, number of participants broken down in different ways, or square feet of office space.   None of these reveal anything about what the foundation or nonprofit wants to accomplish, and whether it’s making progress toward that goal.   A useful dashboard in philanthropy would show these things, at least take a stab at it.  the mission.  Maybe also some gauges showing how well each of the organization’s intended beneficiaries are benefiting in the ways intended.  And some idiot lights showing the health of a variety of organizational capacity modules.  But “bottom-line,” until foundations can say what success with its mission “looks like” as you’re approaching, or from afar, their dashboards will only be like rear-view mirrors.

Dashboards in philanthropy may look cool, but so far they’re not very helpful.

Conveying information graphically adds value to a report, no doubt.  And graphics can communicate in ways that words or numbers alone cannot.  But do dashboards in philanthropy tell anyone where the organization is headed, or what progress it’s making, or where major threats or lurking, or what progress even means in the context of the user’s stated mission?  No, and what a waste!  The world needs to know what progress looks like with your particular mission, so you can sell it to prospective supporters. 

See also Dashboards for Philanthropy / #2 for my proposal to move this in a better direction.

Revised June 8, 2020



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Originally appeared: Website of The Effective Communities Project

Number of pages: 1

Original date: Originally published: April 21, 2011

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.