By Shaun Lee

Imagine if a prospective supporter were to drop in and ask people throughout your organization what are the most important metrics that demonstrate you are accomplishing your mission.  Would there be alignment in their responses?  While most nonprofits are aligned in their general mission, rarely are teams aligned in their understanding of the handful of indicators defining their measurable impact.  We refer to the those measurable metrics that allow you track progress towards your mission as Vitals. When considering how to define your top 5 Vitals, here are some criteria to consider: 

  • Essential- while you may end up tracking several KPIs and metrics, these are the handful that matter most. 
  • In your Control- You can impact if they happen and how they change over time AND you can measure incremental changes. 
  • Impact Oriented- The desired measured results of your efforts and they are tied to your mission
  • Constantly Relevant- you will track these metrics in perpetuity.  They aren’t just relevant for certain seasons, and they aren’t tied to time-bound initiatives. 

When mission driven organizations focus on data its essential that they keep the why front and center.  Everyone needs to understand how improving the ability to review and learn from data ultimately will deepen impact.  In the absence of that clarity, teams will be left to arrive at their own assumptions.  Often times what emerges is a culture that assumes the rigor around capturing and recording data is exclusively an effort to satisfy key stakeholders and funders.  When that happens, organizational health can take a big hit, as there is an assumption the mission has taken a back seat to something else. 

It’s also very common for nonprofits to capture and review too much information.  When this happens, teams are unclear about which metrics are the MOST important.  There will certainly be more than 5 metrics to review, but the effort to decide which are the five that are most important is all about ensuring alignment of effort.  In a sector in which resources can be scarce its essential that every understands what the most important measurable results are that you are working towards.  When this is clear, its much easier to align programs and services towards achieving them.  It can also drive clarity into which programs and services may not be positively impacting your Top 5 Vitals.  

When considering the criteria above, here are examples of Top 5 Vitals for an organization who serves people experiencing homelessness:

  • # of people transitioning to permanent housing
  • Housing retention one year after move-in date
  • Average length of time homeless
  • # of people prevented from becoming homeless
  • # of people obtaining housing-sustaining income

By claiming these metrics as the top 5 vitals, this organization is driving clarity.  They are saying these are the metrics that will always matter to us.  Programs and grants may come and go, but we will always be innovating and improving with the intent of driving positively impacting these metrics.  They are also saying, these are the metrics that prove more than any others how we are accomplishing our mission.  It empowers them to say, “our mission is…. and this is how we demonstrate we are accomplishing it”.

Once you have selected your top 5 Vitals, look 5 years out and set targets for each of them.

In setting these targets, you are setting an ambitious and exciting goal to rally people around and to tether to 3-year vision and 1-year goals to.  Jim Collins describes a Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG) as: “clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort—often creating immense team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines. A BHAG engages people—it reaches out and grabs them in the gut. It is tangible, energizing, highly focused. People “get it” right away; it takes little or no explanation.”  Setting 5-year targets for your First 5 Vitals, will serve the same purpose. 

Want to learn more about how
we can help your organization identify and track its vitals?