4 Performance Measurement Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

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This guest post is from Liana Downey, executive director of Liana Downey & Associates.

Performance management can be a tricky beast — hugely important but difficult to get right. Here are four common mistakes my team and I see among social, government, and nonprofit organizations trying to measure their impact, and tips on how to avoid them.

1. Measuring too much

By far, the most common problem we see is that most organizations try to measure too much. Every additional measure you track uses up precious staff time for collection, aggregation, and analysis. In some cases, tracking too many measures is as almost as bad as not tracking at all.

One client we served had a list of more than 80 measures they were trying to track. As a result, managers and boards were so overwhelmed by the huge amount of information that they had a tendency to glaze over when the data was presented, and little or nothing happened as a result. We helped them whittle this big list down to just a few critical outcome measures for each client group. This meant they were better able to focus their energy, track their efforts, and improve their outcomes.

2. Underutilizing what you have today

Many organizations are so busy worrying about measurement that they don’t realize what a treasure trove of information they may already be sitting on. One national nonprofit had been working on putting together a measurement system for three years, engaging external consultants and doing a lot of hand-wringing about their lack of a large-scale control study. They, like many other organizations, found themselves overwhelmed by choices, confused by terminology, and with little to show for their hard work. Yet in the background, they had also been collecting all kinds of information.

With some new energy, they took a moment to take stock and found that simply by undertaking an audit and tidying up their data they were able to tell compelling story to their current and potential funders. So, before you do anything else — investigate what you have at hand. What information are you already collecting that measures outcomes for your clients?

3. Over-thinking it

Most people feel like they have to build a system from scratch, and they get so ambitious that they stall. Fortunately, you are not the only organization who needs to track and measure information. As funder pressure has increased for more social sector organizations to get better at measurement, whole industries have sprung up with pre-developed surveys and comparison groups.

That may mean that your organization can simply purchase one of the many off-the-shelf tools to track your information and allow you to compare your results with similar population groups. This will help you not only measure your own results, but understand how your clients compare to those who don’t receive your services. This is just the kind of information you can use to understand your impact, improve your performance, and tell a powerful story to potential supporters.

4. Poor presentation

After working hard to gather relevant data, many organizations squander that effort by not going the extra mile to ensure it is easy to understand. One large child-welfare nonprofit collected a lot of interesting information but presented it in tiny font on newspaper-sized spreadsheets. Neither management nor the board members could make really sense of the information. We worked with them to identify the insights from the information, slimming down the amount of information, and showed them how to present it in high-impact, easy-to-understand charts. 

This simple change to how the information was presented had a huge impact. The board and managers were finally able to make sense of the information — they could see under-performance, information gaps, and identify differences in programs. As a result, they are making better decisions with fewer arguments, and improving their outcomes.

Performance management can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Learn how to make sense of performance management — watch Liana in Foundation Center's recorded webinar, “How to Start Measuring Your Organization’s Impact."


Liana Downey

LIANA DOWNEY is an experienced strategic advisor, author and speaker. As executive director of Liana Downey & Associates, Liana and her team serve social enterprises, governments and nonprofits globally. Liana is the author of Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More and Change the World (Bibliomotion, May 2016), lectures at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and previously led the social sector practice for McKinsey & Company, Australia.