When asked for a simple way to think about performance measurement, I usually respond that there are two basic approaches. Setting clear goals and tracking your progress—and comparing yourself to the performance of your peers. The first path requires a clear strategy and commitment to measurement and learning. While no small feat, this is a path that any single organization can successfully pursue. Comparing yourself to peers, however, is more complicated.
How do you find like-minded organizations that are committed to sharing? How do you agree on common terms? What level of transparency are you and your peers comfortable with? How do you get the data in a timely way? How do you interpret the data in a way that yields new insights? And even if you’re able to achieve this once through a research process or benchmarking study, how do you sustain the effort?
Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement featured innovative examples of nonprofits developing shared approaches to performance, outcome, or impact measurement. These efforts are inspiring, creating new opportunities to gauge progress and help organizations learn from one another.
Over the last four years, I have been inspired by the 130 US community foundations who have committed to share knowledge and improve performance through the creation of CF Insights, supported by the Council on Foundations and FSG. The idea is simple: What if each community foundation could know what all community foundations collectively know? But as with many things, the details are complex.
I’ve had a front row seat as CF Insights has grown from an idea to a reality. There have been bumps along the way, but community foundations have navigated each of them: Defining clear and relevant performance data. Generating enough participation to create critical mass. Finding the right balance of participants to represent the diversity of community foundations. Delivering value to early contributors so that the model can be sustained. These are all challenges, but community foundations have an admirable sense of responsibility to one another and to the field as a whole. They’ve stuck with it and the effort is yielding tremendous results.
Today, CF Insights participants have timely performance data available at their fingertips, and are able to compare themselves to organizations they define as peers. The Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region in Wisconsin uses the CF Insights database to quickly assemble comparative data for Board presentations. Arizona Community Foundation used the data during a recent strategic planning process to help define what makes them unique. Comparative data helped identify areas of strength or challenges where the organization should be learning from others. Others, like The Dallas Foundation, use the data to make the case for changes to policy or practice. Even during the economic downturn, the organization tapped data about similar community foundations to justify an important investment in internal capacity.
All too often we lament the social sector’s lack of performance data. Let’s celebrate the groups that have prioritized collaboration, taken on the challenges, and advanced their own knowledge—individually and collectively.