Advancing Philanthropy

Fundraising Tools: Program Performance—The Tie That Binds

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Performance. Donors demand it. Development officers plead for it. Program managers assure executives they do it. Websites advertise it.

But what is it? How do you measure it? And how can you possibly establish a system for expressing it when you are trying to keep your head above water providing multiple services to multiple people at multiple points in time and space? It is a complex, head-scratching problem.

Why Bother?

Program performance systems are not just critical for donor mobilization. They are, or ought to be, critical to development strategy. We will return to this point later.

But performance is an essential part of management. Without clear performance metrics—without being able to say with certainty if and how programs are meeting their intended goals—we cannot manage them, we cannot make decisions about what works or what should even exist, and we absolutely cannot make a reasoned decision about how to allocate scarce resources across programmatic functions.

Even if no one is looking, even if donors do not care, without performance metrics managers are making directional decisions blindfolded.

At Edmundite Missions, a Catholic nonprofit serving Selma, Alabama, and the Black Belt of the Deep South for 85 years, growing program complexity forced us to confront this problem. In one of the poorest areas of the nation, the Missions has evolved over the past 10 years from a feeding program to an integrated portfolio of initiatives that both serve the poorest of the poor and drive solutions into community development. That evolution takes place against a clear theory of change and a core strategy of combining service and solutions for the four most important pillars of development in our community: nutrition, health, education and economic self-reliance. But that complexity means two things. First, we need to make choices, and to make choices we need to know how we are doing. Second, we need to explain this complexity to donors in clear and compelling ways.

But all of this is difficult. We all have three boxes on our desk or our device: “In,” “Still In,” and “Out.” Metrics usually languish in the “Still In” box because attention to service always seems to crowd out attention to knowledge. As donors and foundations become more discriminating and engaged, and as the problems we address become more complex, however, we ignore the “Still In” box at our peril.

Step One: Setting Goals

But where to start? As is often the case, the first step in starting is to stop.

Programs need to set goals that are measurable in terms of performance. This does not mean that the larger vision and mission of the organization must be dialed back to the quantitative. You can still be dedicated to saving the world. But the programs that carry that mission forward—improving health, for example—need to be articulated with measurable goals—e.g., reducing the percentage of third graders who are overweight or obese by 50%.

Unless programs have goals, performance metrics will tell you what you are doing, but they will not tell you whether you are getting anywhere. Movement is not necessarily progress.

So, the first step is to stop focusing only on “doing” and focus on defining what you are trying to achieve by that “doing.”

Three Performance Dimensions

With a goal in hand, there are three critical elements of performance.

Transactions

This is the simplest dimension—numbers of people served or numbers of services provided. It is outputs. It is simple but it may or may not have meaning. That I served 500 people, does not mean that I served 500 individuals. I may have served 500 people once or 100 people five times. Whether that is good or bad depends on my goal. If my goal is intensity, then the latter measure is progress. If my goal is reach, then the former metric is progress. Simply saying “500” to a donor who asks may not be meaningful. Moreover, an engaged donor will ask the follow up question about what “500” means, and “umm” is generally not a compelling response.

Edmundite Missions Example: At the Missions, all programs—nutrition, health, education and employment—have transactions measures driven by goals. But all measures track both the service aggregate (numbers of people) and the specific (numbers of unique individuals). We know how many meals we serve at a sitting and sum those up to meals in a month. However, we also regularly carry out a census to determine how many individuals we serve in that month, and the management focus is on numbers of individuals not numbers of meals.

So, even when all you have are transactions to measure performance be very sure that the way you are measuring is deeply reflective of your goal.

Relationships

Much of what nonprofits do is focused on change because in most cases societal improvement and economic improvement means change. Change takes time and attention. Therefore, another measure of performance in a setting of change management is relationships—how your programs or services build relationships with individuals or institutions over time. Relationships can link to transactions. For example, if change is an element of your childhood obesity goal, then the transaction is the numbers of children. However, the relationship may be the average number of times an individual child attends a nutrition program event or the average number of times an individual child’s caretaker attends a healthy cooking class. Intensity of exposure is a surrogate for the building of a relationship.

Edmundite Missions Example: At the Missions, we know how many children are registered for the programs and average program attendance. At our Community Center we know how many people check in at the door. But, we are partners with our community in improving health, wellness and education. Therefore, the transaction is not enough. We need to know whether we are actually building a relationship with people that can be converted into the trusted transfer of knowledge about opportunity and change. Therefore, the relationship measures tracked are, for example, percent of students who attend education programs 75% of the time or more or percentage of people/families who use the Community Center who also have children in the education program. Understanding how deeply we are embedded in a community’s life tells us how well we are doing in positioning ourselves as a change management partner.

Quality

Quality assessment is standard operating procedure in most corporations because customers have choices. It is not so in most nonprofits that tend to think more about their own knowledge and expertise than about the views of those being served who are generally not experts. This asymmetric relationship is a product of seeing nonprofit work as traditional charity from the haves to the have nots. But if one is truly to be a community partner, then that traditional view is a barrier. The question of quality is essential; not what do I think my quality is, but what does my community think my quality is. What does the customer think? Management that does not take that into account will never proffer programs that truly build community. The metrics of quality—the actual indicators—will differ by service and by program, but they must be present in the performance portfolio.

Edmundite Missions Example: At the Missions we assess quality in two ways. First, every program site has an electronic kiosk. That kiosk asks clients to rate their experience on a Likert scale (smiley faces not words). The questions are short and simple. They vary every week. The kiosks pour data into a central databank so that every week, monthly and quarterly program managers can assess their own work and compare the community’s perception of their quality to that of their peers. Second, every program conducts a semi-annual client survey to ask people what they think and what they want. These two sets of data undergird program plans that drive toward community priorities (or tell us what we need to communicate better to influence community choices toward betterment) and improve program quality, service quality, and our own staff.

The Donor-Facing Role of Program Performance

Performance can mobilize donors. Many donors just want to see transactions—the bigger the better. Some donors want to understand scale and intensity and be assured that change is happening. A few donors (heaven forefend) want to be down in the weeds. The performance data produced for donors can, and often should, be at an aggregate level. The aggregates that portray the scale of transactions can demonstrate the importance of the work and the role that donor resources play in that work.

But performance metrics can play an added role in development strategy. Metrics provide intelligence. They enable development executives to deepen their fundraising strategies, networks and targets. They suggest new arguments for programs, ways to articulate an organization’s mission and impact, and new types and categories of supporters to be cultivated. They enable boards to see results and, therefore, motivate board engagement in fundraising. Performance becomes not just the foundation for program direction, it is also the foundation for fundraising strategy.

Performance is the tie that binds program managers and development executives in growing the nonprofit mission in service to community.

Susan Raymond, Ph.D.Susan Raymond, Ph.D., is the chief innovation officer and vice president of program integration at Edmundite Missions in Selma, Alabama, and chief operating officer of Edmundite Missions Enterprises, the social enterprise arm of the Missions where 100% of profits are reinvested in hunger alleviation in Selma and rural areas.

Chad McEachernChad McEachern is president and chief executive officer of Edmundite Missions in Selma, Alabama, and serves as a trustee of the National Catholic Community Foundation, chairman of the Board of the Wallace Community College Foundation, chairman of the Steering Committee of the U.S. Attorney’s Weed and Seed Committee for Dallas County, and trustee of St. Michael’s College.

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