I don’t like dashboards but am willing to date one

InsitesI probably have a few 2014 New Year resolutions that I have not fully engaged with yet (like blogging here more regularly) but I am having to tackle my priority one—developing a better organization-wide framework for monitoring performance and communicating the foundation’s impact across grantmaking, donor services, fundraising, and all our work.  I am not sure how often other evaluators get asked to help with organization-wide dashboards but in the world of philanthropy there is a lot of interest and demand.  I know my colleagues in other foundations get slightly nauseous looks on their faces when you ask about the dashboards they use in their organizations.  Not only are we not universally proud of them but often we just don’t like them.

Now we are all pro-data, pro-measurement cheerleaders and more importantly we are all advocates for the utilization of data and evaluation to promote learning.  And we know how good visual summaries and graphics of data can increase understanding and analysis by people.  So why are we so underwhelmed by the dashboards we have?  (And even admit hating to work on them?)

I am a committed outcome proselytizer and I enthusiastically promote Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity and Mark Friedman’s Results-Based Accountability (RBA).  I have seen how nonprofits and foundation staff are helped by clear process and outcome definitions, good and reliable measures, and simple summaries of change over time.  But I am still left underwhelmed, disappointed, and most often very worried that most performance dashboards are not getting at the “right” data that will help change behavior and achieve the results we want.

Dashboards in their parsimony do often lack context or enough context to satisfy a footnoting evaluator.  They do focus attention on key efforts and strategies and I strongly believe (as Morino has advocated) that more nonprofits need to focus on measuring their work and outcomes as a primary operating capacity.  But I still feel that most are missing more than just additional context. Recently I read Henry Doss’ assessment of how businesses need to apply more focus and measurement to the features they want to see in the ecosystem and not simply the outputs they produce and are incentivized to produce.  This reminded me of Pete York’s frequent admonition that nonprofits need to focus more attention on the proximate cause-and-effect relationships they can impact.  Most of the performance and outcome measurement I have seen and experienced with foundations and nonprofits are misaligned with incentives, target goals too distant from the efforts, and ignore the influences in and on the ecosystems around us.

Doss noted that our short-term performance incentives are often misaligned with our long-term vision.  And in an increasingly VUCA world (my 2013 word-of-the-year, not “selfie”) keeping the alignment between our mission and our strategies (and, therefore, our performance metrics) is increasingly difficult.  Despite their usefulness in driving performance, dashboards can “miss the mark” around overall organizational mission if they do not address not just what we do and what we think those effects are but also how we should be influencing and responding to the influences of the changing world around us while still driving towards mission and impact.  Dashboards can’t and shouldn’t do everything but how can I develop a dashboard that helps staff keep an eye on performance, quality, and effective implementation while also holding everyone together in our collective mission?

I have often wanted to include organizational values and “how we work” in performance measurement—It is not just how much we do but they way we work which is important.  Glenda Eoyang’s “Devaluing Values” made me appropriately cautious and skeptical of organizational values without naming the practiced and observable behaviors we need to see and incentivize.  Especially when these behaviors are adaptive and help the organization thrive in a changing environment when the bar keeps moving and yesterday’s performance target is no longer relevant.  It is these behaviors that I want to make sure get measured, reported, and incentivized.

And if I can get this kind of dashboard completed by the second quarter of 2014 I will attempt another of my resolutions and exercise more regularly.

For additional resources:

Examples of foundation dashboards  http://dashboards.wikispaces.com/Foundation+Examples

FSG’s The Foundation Performance Dashboard http://www.fsg.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/PDF/Foundation_Performance_Dashboard.pdf?cpgn=WP%20DL%20-%20The%20Foundation%20Performance%20Dashboard

“Making Sense of Your Foundation Data with Dashboards and Scorecards”  http://www.gmnetwork.org/annual-conference/2010/sessions/making-sense-your-foundation-data-dashboards-and-scorecards

5 thoughts on “I don’t like dashboards but am willing to date one

  1. Chris Lysy

    Nice post Tom. I’ve been thinking about dashboards a bit recently and keep thinking about two things.

    1. Is it really all that important that everything fits within a page? We are more than ready to scroll up and down on blogs and webpages, does it really have to resemble a “dashboard”.

    2. Because of all the development and prep time needed to think through everything and make something that appears on one screen, you end up creating something that’s not really adaptive to changing needs. Putting so much money up front, it’s hard to justify putting in more money to keep adapting. Why not focus the design on making something that is easy to update and quicker to launch. Kind of like an entrepreneurial approach (Minimum Viable Dashboard?)

    One thing I’d plan to try this year… I could build the framework for a dashboard like site quickly using WordPress, and include embedded visuals. It would be quick to launch and easily adaptable to fit the needs of an organization.

    Reply
    1. Tomeval Post author

      Chris – thanks for your comment. I like and am thinking about more dynamic “dashboards” that build off of a variety of data sources depending on the decision at hand. I will be struggling with different levels/detail depending on audiences and the “perceived” level of effort to create and maintain them.

      Reply
  2. Ann Price

    Tom- I too was reluctant/resistant about dashboards but have had to get on the wagon so to speak. Dashboard do help clients engage with their data- we all agree a good thing. What made me nervous and still does, is the idea that dashboards might be thought of as = evaluation. They just can’t be. No more than simple monitoring helps reach outcomes. It is simply a tool. I have sat in meetings where boards believe all they need is a dashboard and the job of evaluation is accomplished. Cringe. So we have entered into the dashboard world but preach to the congregation that context matters. An organization ignores context at their own peril- dashboard or not. Great post.

    Reply
    1. Tomeval Post author

      Aloha, Ann
      Ah, yes, but when evaluators fall off the wagon! I absolutely agree – I think it is why evaluators are so reluctant to engage with dashboards out of a fear that it will end the thinking/analysis/evaluation that we know needs to go deeper. But I do want to try promoting the kinds of behaviors the group can use to review the dashboard and start posing questions more complicated than simple dashboard metrics.

      Reply
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