Dashboards for Philanthropy

Rear view mirrors?


You hear a lot from funders these days about their hunger for “dashboards” that display the latest information to guide their decision-making.

Dashboards have taken over the corporate sector as part of the “business intelligence” movement, so naturally the boards of foundations and nonprofits want to try them in the philanthropic sector.  Websites such as dashboards.org or dashboardzone.com have sprung up offering displays of dials and gauges and other cool displays of any old business metric you can think of, typically relating to finance.

The quest for “dashboards” to display organizational performance in the philanthropic sector is part of the clamor to apply metrics to everything, to quantify and monetize outcomes, and to hold grant recipients accountable for bottom-line results.

Unfortunately, most dashboards I’ve seen for philanthropic organizations don’t really do more than cram a bunch of info that’s already in the annual report into pretty graphs, pie charts, histograms, sparkling line graphs and such.  Yes, they can be visually engaging (though most cram too much into a single display just to show they can do it), and snappier than a bunch of boring paragraphs, and because they’re novel they look cool.

The idea is that they’re supposed to tell the organization “where it’s going,” just like, I’ve been told by several people, a car dashboard does.   But you know what?  A car dashboard doesn’t tell you where you’re going, or even where you are.

A car dashboard tells you the rate of speed you’re traveling, how many miles you’ve gone, and how much fuel remains.  There are a few “idiot lights” to let you know your car is about to explode, and an increasing number of entertainment gauges and comfort meters.  These are all useful, but there’s nothing at all about where you’re headed or even where you are.  Only recently has the car dashboard included a GPS, 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.  Analogy, anyone?

What do we get 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, easily countable.

Conveying information graphically adds value to a report, no doubt, and communicates in ways that words or numbers alone cannot.  But do they tell anyone where you or your organization are headed?  No. The philanthropic dashboards I’ve seen are not navigational aids to the future as much as they are counters of the past.  And as with cars, there’s something missing: where are we going, what will it take, are we making progress, and where, exactly, are the ditches?

Originally published: April 21, 2011