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Helping Nonprofits Make a Measurable Difference: Why Bill Gates’ “Measurement” Credo Matters for Public Sector Human Service Agencies

The following is a guest post by , Co-found and Vice President of Social Solutions.

“…if I keep no record of what I do, I can always assume I’ve succeeded.” (start at 2:55)

Steven Colbert, making a joke in his interview with Bill Gates, cuts to the heart of a problem that is hamstringing the advancement of the human services sector – how to measure nonprofit organizations’ successes.

Adrian Bordone Adrian Bordone

In his 2013 annual letter, Bill Gates spelled out in no uncertain terms the importance of fixing this self-destructive problem:

Given how tight budgets are around the world, governments are rightfully demanding effectiveness in the programs they pay for. To address these demands, we need better measurement tools to determine which approaches work and which do not.

(Don’t have time to read the full letter? There’s a great rundown of important takeaways here.)

To be clear, this call to action drives us beyond the barren landscape of compliance toward an understanding of performance – from “did it happen?” to “what difference did it make?” Measurement aligns our passion with our intellect. When called to meet the needs of others, we must ensure that the services we are providing are making the difference we intend, and the difference that our communities need. Molly Baldwin, the executive director of Roca (a high-performing youth development organization recently selected for a Pay for Success contract in Massachusetts) really hit this point out of the proverbial park:

“You’re taking somebody else’s money, to get into somebody else’s life, to try to make a difference. You better be showing you can make a difference!”

Measuring Outcomes, Not Outputs

We need to shift focus from outputs to outcomes—from counting numbers in boxes to measuring what is actually making a difference in the lives of the individuals and families. While philanthropy must continue to be an innovative funder, we know that public sector investment in human services outstrips private investment by an order of magnitude (program spending by the Administration on Children and Families alone exceeded that of all national foundations in 2011—when coupled with program spending in other areas of DHHS, plus HUD, ED, DOL, CNCS and other federal agencies, plus spending by state and local governments, we begin to appreciate the immensity of the difference in resources). Obviously, public policy and funding has an important role to play here. Funding needs to be directed more intentionally towards services and strategies that demonstrate incremental impact and long-term outcome achievement. This is not compliance – this is beyond compliance. Not only does it make the specific organization more effective, but also the insight gained from the data collection, analysis and course correction (called “performance management”) can actually help advance the field as a whole.

To date, we see the federal government taking some significant steps in this direction. They have set aside over $100MM for Pay for Success initiatives, such as career training under the Second Chance Act, but also initiatives like the Social Innovation Fund (out of CNCS) and Investing in Innovation (out of ED).

Some states have followed suit, but many still lag behind. Sadly, we know we need to bring best practice service delivery to scale – we have to make it the norm, not the exception – in order to deliver high quality services to our most at-risk populations. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Obama administration have taken some very bold, inspiring steps towards widespread adoption, but there is still much more work to do. Our communities and our economy can’t afford anything less.

Though funders, particularly government funders, need to respond to this imperative for the sector, service providers have an essential role to play as well. You can learn more about performance management from “Leap of Reason” by Mario Marino (free book) and “Working Hard – and Working Well” (upcoming, free manual) by David Hunter. Please join them and Sam Cobbs, CEO of First Place for Youth, for a free, PerformWell-sponsored performance management webinar on Thursday, 3/7:

Adrian Bordone is co-founder and Vice President of Social Solutions, Inc, an industry-leading provider of performance management software for human service organizations. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Adrian is a 1993 graduate of the University of Baltimore and earned a Master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis in 1996.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice