Given my current preoccupation with both outcomes management and data visualization for mission-based organizations, perhaps it’s not a surprise that I’m daydreaming about integrating applications that were designed for these two tasks.
This daydream was inspired by a recent conversation with Patrice Keegan, executive director of Boston Cares (a HandsOn Network affiliate). She is keenly interested in both outcomes and data visualization, and she leads a nonprofit of modest size that collaborates not only with many local partners but also with a national network of sister organizations that facilitate short-term volunteering. In other words, Boston Cares provides a gateway to volunteerism for individuals, corporations, and community-based nonprofits, and then shares best practices with its counterparts across the United States.
What better poster girl could there be than Patrice, for my Cause, which is making it not only possible but easy for her to take her outcomes analyses and turn them in visuals that tell the story of the social impact of Boston Cares?
Moreover, what good is a cause and a poster child, without a poster? Here’s mine:
Special note to software developers in the nonprofit sector: please take a look at that bright, shining face, and give your efforts to the cause.
Heads up, mission-based organizations in Massachusetts! Powerful data visualization tools (and the skills to use them) are within your reach.
Thanks to the MetroBoston DataCommon, all you need to get started is to sign up for one of their trainings. The DataCommon is a joint project of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Boston Indicators Project; if you’ve been admiring not only the insights but the great graphics that you find on the latter’s web site, then you’ll have no trouble seeing the value of the free training.
An enormous added value of taking the MetroBoston DataCommon training is that they walk you through the process of creating a free Weave account. This means that the version of Weave that you will be using is already loaded with crucial data sets from sources such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You will be able to analyze, understand, and communicate your organization’s mission and impact, while using hard data about regional conditions to provide a context.
Of course, this opportunity is going to be less helpful to those who are not within an easy traveling distance of the MetroBoston DataCommon headquarters at MAPC. What I would like to see is regional planning agencies and nonprofit associations in other states offer similar resources and trainings.
I’m sitting here, reflecting on the Innovation Network’s “State of Evaluation 2012” report.
I encourage you to download it and read it for yourself; start with pages 14 and 15. These two pages display infographics that summarize what funders (also known as “grantors,” or if you’re Bob Penna, as “investors”) and nonprofits (also known as “grantees”) are reporting about why they do evaluation and what they are evaluating.
Regardless of whether you call it evaluation, impact assessment, outcomes management, performance measurement, or research – it’s really, really difficult to ascertain whether a mission-based organization is delivering the specific, positive, and sustainable change that it promises to its stakeholders. Many organizations do an excellent job at tracking outputs, but falter when it comes to managing outcomes. That’s in part because proving a causal relationship between what the nonprofit does and the specific goals that it promises to achieve is very costly in time, effort, expertise, and money.
But assuming that a mission-based organization is doing a rigorous evaluation, we still need to ask: what is done with the findings, once the analysis is complete?
What the aforementioned infographics from the “State of Evalution 2012” tell me is that both grantors and grantees typically say that the most important thing they can do with their outcome findings is to report them to their respective boards of directors. Considering the depth of the moral and legal responsibility that is vested in board members, this is a pretty decent priority. But it’s unclear to me what those boards actually do with the information. Do they use it to guide the policies and operations of their respective organizations? If so, does anything change for the better?
If you have an answer to the question of how boards use this information that is based on firsthand experience, then please feel to post a comment here.