Monday, November 5, 2012

Is Your Mission Bigger Than What You Can Measure?

I often refer to Dilbert cartoons (a creation of Scott Adams) as a way to explain not only the inner workings of office environments but also how they apply to associations and nonprofits.  (In fact, I consider "Way of the Weasel" required reading for staff.)

Does this cartoon look familiar to anyone?  It does to me.  I am often amazed at how much time we spend in associations and nonprofits developing "metrics" that in many cases reward the wrong behavior. I am not saying metrics are not important, nor am I encouraging their wholesale abandonment.  But I am railing a bit against the continued mindless application of metrics to each and every activity we undertake.

As associations and nonprofits we do have a responsibility to provide some benchmarks to measure our performance against.  Good strategy does require some amount of reflection on "How will we know when we get there?" or "What is going to indicate that we are making progress?"  Stakeholders do like to know there is some method to the madness and desires for transparency make it imperative that we have some cogent explanation for what we are doing with the members or volunteers money and/or time.

That being said, I urge all of us to rethink the standard metrics that seem to be so prevalent in our sector.  Are we really sure we are measuring the right things to get the outcomes we desire?  Are we really sure every single thing can or should be measured?  How much time do our committees and boards waste on ceaseless measurement of current activities as opposed to research and development on more innovative programs?

Does counting how many LGBTQ members we have in association leadership really tell us if we have a gay friendly culture? Does setting a metric of a 5% attendance increase for educational programs tell us if our education is truly valuable or as cutting edge as it needs to be? Does setting a metric of "increasing membership by 20%" really demonstrate our long-term value and viability?

At some point, we have to get beyond quantitative metrics as our most "valid" measure, and include qualitative analysis as well.  Numbers may be easier, but they only tell half the story. Can mercy be quantified?  Can offering members emotional support during tough times be reduced to a number? Must our objectives always be reduced to a quotient in the name of efficiency?  What do we artificially prevent ourselves from doing because we aren't completely sure how we will measure the activity in the end?

Is our mission bigger than what we can measure?  God I hope so.

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