Many solid articles from the past few months address how nonprofits can and should respond in a crisis. As nonprofits scramble to rethink fundraising events, apply for loans, engage board and major stakeholders through online meetings and phone calls, handle direct services safely for staff, volunteers, service recipients, etc., focusing on capacity building might seem ill-timed.
An important consideration is that when the dust settles and more “normal” activities resume, funders of all types will have a heightened focus on leveraging funds for societal good in proven ways. While devising performance measures is frequently at the top of a “wish-we-did” list, this task often falls in priority compared to the day-to-day demands of direct service provision. An organization might be producing amazing results yet not be able to prove it.
To emerge from a crisis stronger and be prepared for inevitable scrutiny of outcomes, nonprofits can focus on ways to measure performance now. There might be professionals in the arena of performance measurement who have extra time on their hands and willing to volunteer. Nonprofit leaders can also take the plunge and explore information and examples available for free online. A first baby step is to think of proxy measures.
If goals seem impossibly nebulous to measure, proxy measures are a great way to stimulate thinking about what the organization aims to accomplish—the logic model of the mission. A “proxy” is an indirect measure of the intended outcome, which is itself correlated to that outcome. For instance, domestic violence prevention efforts have realized that attitude towards violence against women (ascertained through survey data) is an indicator of violence actually occurring. Another example is a cause seeking to boost children’s self-esteem; in lieu of questioning the children directly, a proxy-report from a parent or caregiver can be used. Surveys are most commonly used to measure attitudinal goals.
Bear in mind that many government entities, from national or state government agencies to your local school board, routinely contract for studies that may provide useful demographic and other data with a bearing on any organization’s mission. This data can prove valuable in developing proxy measures. For instance, students reported receiving free or reduced lunch can be a proxy for assessing poverty.
We all know that correlation does not equal causation, but when it seems impossible to observe and/or measure an intangible goal, a proxy measure shows a good-faith effort to analyze effectiveness. Further, the process of brainstorming proxy measures will induce constructive internal analysis and make staff/board leadership more confident in expressing the logic behind operations.
A bottom line is that taking one capacity-building step in a crisis, like developing a single additional performance measure, can help secure continued financial backing on the other side.