My Struggle with Indicators

Non-profits are encouraged to measure things. That makes sense. People don’t want to throw their money away. Funders want to invest in things that work. But, the urge to find things to measure may be producing negative results.

Here is what I know. As a non-profit director you need to develop indicators for success. Program indicators are tough for people doing advocacy.

The low hanging fruit, when it comes to indicators, are communications and fundraising. They are easily countable. You can demonstrate how many people liked your tweet, read your article, or the number of times your staff was quoted by the media. And, you know for sure how much money you brought in, where it came from, the number of new donors, your retention rate, etc.

If you are even a little sophisticated you can A/B test your messaging. Give your message a few small trial runs and see what prompts the greatest response. Increased response is an indicator of success.

As a good non-profit you will work these measurable indicators into your long-term planning. You produce dashboards for your board of directors making progress toward your goals visible and easily understood.

This is a form of accountability. It is a good thing. We want successful and transparent non-profits.

But does the non-profit measurement yin have a yang?

The most dramatic messages, the ones that convey a sense of urgency, are often the most effective. They get the most likes and bring in the most money.

The language of urgency usually paints a simplest picture, the kind that contributes to polarization. It certainly doesn’t reduce it. I also think that these messages give people unrealistic expectations about change and how it happens.

How many times have you seen a non-profit appeal that ends with, “Now is the moment.” “This is the time.” “Your gift is more important than ever.” We are constantly on the verge of reaching our goal.

I’m sure that I’ve written too many of these. My apologies. Furthermore, this constant sense of urgency is exhausting.

What I believe that advocacy work is critically important. However, the way we talk about it may be a disservice to the overall effort. We need to help people understand social problems and believe that they can be changed. But we are not always on the verge of success and our best work often is not reflected in things you can count.

I had a board member who liked to talk about moving from success to success. It was a good fundraising message, but it always made me squirm. We did not move from one well-positioned building block to the next.

Advocacy for social change is a slog. It requires creativity, commitment and perseverance. You can sense trends, but you don’t really know when the moment of change will come.

The kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School may be the catalyst this country needs to make things happen, but they stand on the shoulders of so many who came before them in the effort to reduce gun violence. Were those working to reduce gun violence in the past merely unsuccessful, or did they lay the groundwork for change? I think the latter.

Sen. George Mitchell who helped negotiate the peace agreement in Northern Ireland once said, “…we had 700 days of failure and one day of success.”

What would happen if we expected more of our readers and donors? What if we reminded our donors that social change is hard and that we need them to have a long attention span? Along the way, we will demonstrate how creative, committed and opportunist we are. Stick with us.

“This is a slog,” is a terrible fundraising message, but it is true.

Might not A/B test well so our indicators might go down, but wouldn’t it be refreshing? And maybe we would be training our constituents and donors to be better advocates for change because they would understand how it happens.


One thought on “My Struggle with Indicators

  1. I work for a nonprofit that spent the last three years on a project intended to create revenue through a mission-based initiative. To make a long story short, Plan A didn’t work as we’d hoped. We’re currently in planning stages for Plan B. While talking with a top donor about the project, he said to me “I failed many times in my business. I always figured that if I only ever succeeded, I wasn’t trying hard enough.” Thank you for your post. It was a timely reminder.


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