Years ago, I worked at an organization that held a regular monthly meeting to review its most important programmatic outcomes. The meeting was made up of the executives and directors within the organization. The goal was to make sure everyone was on the same page about our performance towards achieving our mission, as well as continuing to identify opportunities to improve. Unfortunately, within a month, the meeting became toxic and largely unproductive. Several directors were so used to the executive team using data as a hammer, the meeting became a dreaded experience. By the fourth meeting, it was so bad that three directors showed up to the meeting with band-aids on their foreheads to symbolize the toxicity.
This meeting was started with the hopes of creating a culture of learning and improvement but in a few short months, had gone off the rails. A team that was committed to huge change in their organization quickly lost focus on what mattered most. They were suddenly wading deep in relational problems and inefficient processes.
With the benefit of many years since that meeting, I look back and see the core problem was a lack of alignment on questions like, “Why do we exist?”, “Where are we headed?”, and “What are our unique strengths?” Had we been aligned on the answers to these questions from the beginning, we could have avoided the traps that snared us.
We often get approached by nonprofits that want our help developing an outcomes framework. Usually, they are looking for help due to two reasons. The first is one of their stakeholders has asked them to demonstrate their impact through a logic model or through the outcomes they hope to achieve. The second is because they are frustrated with their inability to demonstrate their impact.
Although logic models and outcomes frameworks can be effective visual tools to help organizations understand if their efforts are leading to their desired impact, they aren’t the best place to start. It’s critical that organizations are first rooted and aligned in their most important convictions: identity, values, unique strengths, and long-term desired impact. Without these, organizations will face conflict like the story above. When organizations take time to strengthen their convictions around their mission, they find that rhythms like monthly outcome reviews have more meaning than when they are disconnected.
The following steps provide a roadmap for organizations to strengthen their convictions:
1. Start by defining your Organizational Identity
The framework for David La Piana’s, The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, offers a simple seven-question format that helps organizations define their identity. This is a great place to begin establishing organizational clarity and unity. Ask yourself the following:
- What is your mission or exist statement?
- What is the intended impact?
- Which clients will be served?
- What geographic service area will target?
- What programs and services will be offered?
- What competitive advantage will be emphasized emphasize?
- What are the sustaining funding sources?
2. Discover your Organizational Values
Many experts agree that in order to nurture a healthy culture, organizations must have a clear understanding of their values. One of the best frameworks to develop great core values is from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage. The most important goal of defining organizational values is to be able to clearly state the key behaviors and attitudes to be embraced. When defining these, use the following questions to determine if you are landing on your organization’s true, unique values:
- Do they lie at the heart of your organization’s identity?
- Are they timeless?
- Do they already exist? Are they inherently natural to us?
- Would you hire, fire, reward, and discipline based on them?
3. Define your Unique Strengths
Think of your organizational strengths as the intersection of what you are most passionate about and what you have the most skill/experience in. If you have been acquainted with Jim Collin’s Hedgehog Concept, this may sound familiar. When defining your strengths, consider the following questions:
- What are you most passionate about?
- What are you/ could you be the best in the world at?
- What are the sustaining funding sources that will be the fuel for you to spend as much time as possible operating in your organizational strengths?
4. Set your Change the World Target
A long-term metric can provide inspiration and focus for your team. This metric must be big enough so your team is excited to pursue it, yet not so far-fetched that it seems impossible. It should also make you feel as though you will have had a significant impact on the problem you are trying to solve – essentially that you will have made a noticeable difference on the social issue you are fighting to change.
- It’s clear and resonates- your team “gets it”
- It excites you when you wake up in the morning
- It will stretch everyone, yet still feel reachable
- It’s a 5 to 10-year target that is measurable
Strengthening your organization’s convictions by developing your Identity Statement, Organizational Values, Organization’s Strengths, and Change the World Target are the beginnings of a solid foundation. From that foundation, you can then layer tools to strengthen operational efficiencies and provide insight into your ability to achieve your impact, such as tracking objectives and key results (OKRs), key erformance indicators (KPIs) as a weekly pulse report, or monthly outcomes.
Many organizations jump right into tracking outcomes and developing logic models without first clarifying their convictions because they are unwilling to go slow before going fast. This approach makes it difficult to decide which metrics will ultimately tell you if you are making progress towards achieving your impact. The rush to get to scorecards, OKRs, or anything “measurable” as opposed to taking the time to evaluate what metrics must be measured will ultimately cost more time and frustration.
After the steps outlined above, your organization will be ready to develop weekly metrics and monthly outcomes with a clear lens. Knowing your Organizational Convictions provides the ability to track what really matters. Without a stated Change the World Target, how will you know what metrics to review month over month? In other words – what are you tracking progress towards? Without understanding what you are most passionate about and what you want to be the best at, you run the risk of capturing and reviewing data that ultimately does not help you determine if you are having the desired impact you want to have. To further understand these concepts, review the following example of an imaginary nonprofit:
Organizational Identity Statement for Hope for Austin
- Mission or exist statement: We offer a place for people experiencing chronic homelessness to find hope and restoration
- The intended impact: Reduce the number of people living in places not meant for human habitation in our community.
- Clients to be served: people experiencing homelessness as defined by HUD
- The geographic service area: Austin metro area
- The programs and services offered: Case management, mental health, physical health, childcare, job training, and substance use recovery
- A competitive advantage to emphasize: Person-centered approach that considers past trauma, and a collaborative service model that reduces barriers to services, community support systems
- Sustaining funding sources: individual donors: 50%., local foundations 20%., government grants: 20%, two major events 10%
Core Values for Hope for Austin
- Building community: Our strength comes from our relationships
- Person-centered: Everyone has a story
- Radical compassion: We always lean into offering love and grace
- Constantly learning: we humbly seek to improve and grow
Unique Strengths for Hope for Austin
- We are most passionate about offering a community of support like no other where people experiencing homelessness can find hope and restoration.
- What can you be better than anyone in your field at? Creating a rare community of care and wrap-around support for people who were previously homeless that works to prevent them from returning to homelessness.
- What are the sustaining funding sources that will fuel your vision? A large base of devoted individual donors that deeply believe in our approach.
Change the World Target for Hope for Austin
- To move 2,000 people experiencing homelessness in Austin into a new home by the end of 2029.
With this level of clarity in their convictions, Hope for Austin now has a clear lens to determine which metrics to track weekly, monthly, quarterly, and so on. For example, if they know that the best way to support their mission is through a large base of individual donors who give small monthly donations, they will need to develop a strategy that continues to grow that base of supporters. For instance, they might determine the best way to do this is to share stories of personal transformation from the people they are serving via social media. In order to track this metric, Hope for Austin may decide to evaluate engagement on these particular posts on a weekly basis.
Furthermore, Hope for Austin might also determine that people need to see it to believe it – they know that when people come to their campus for tours, they are more likely to donate. They may choose to track the number of tours and find ways to increase the number of tours taken within a set period. Without knowing their primary funding pool, Hope for Austin will not be able to effectively monitor their progress towards receiving small donations.
Similarly, let’s review Hope for Austin’s conviction about what they want to be the best at. Since they have stated they want to create a rare community of support that keeps someone from returning to homelessness, they should have key metrics to help them determine if they are creating their desired type of community.
One example could be to track the number of engaged service partnerships they have. Based on their core values, they should only select service partners who share their values of community and compassion. Another potential metric could be to track survey scores from participants that determine if the surrounding community is having a positive impact on their lives. Additionally, they might want to review the number of human interactions each resident has and look for a correlation to sustained permanent housing status. Regardless of the metrics chosen, they have a lens to guide what to track and what will tell them if they are building the best community of support for their residents.
Before your organization decides to identify and track key performance indicators (KPIs), develop OKRs, or create a logic model, make sure you first work to strengthen your most important Organizational Convictions. Determining which KPIs or OKRS to track and review is hard work- especially for nonprofits. Often, leaders spend significant relational capital convincing peers of the importance of tracking key data. When leaders take on the challenge of trying to learn from the data they are tracking, it must be thoughtful and completely aligned to their mission. If it isn’t, they run the risk of creating organizational rifts and frustration from wasting staff time.
Alternatively, if leaders can connect data review to increased impact, it will build a culture that thrives on learning and continuous improvement. If you are reading this, you are likely engaged in work that is changing the world. The stakes are too high to waste time tracking and reviewing data that doesn’t strengthen your culture or advance your mission.