Failing to use data is failing your nonprofit organization
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
You research your mortgage options, your car loan interest rates and schools for your children, but when it comes to our nonprofits, this depth of data and research is sometimes missing. Data is the cornerstone of good decision-making and is necessary for board and staff effectiveness.
How many times are we engaged in an excellent discussion at a board meeting that immediately stalls out when someone asks the question, "Do we have any hard facts supporting this decision or initiative?" What you typically hear is silence followed by someone saying, "We will have to get back to you on that." Three months or more later, we are discussing the same initiative.
Have we lost critical ground? Here are five ways to effectively anticipate and use data in your organization for performance excellence:
1. Focus on your organization's key strategic goals
You cannot anticipate every single issue during a board meeting that may arise, but if your agendas are centered around the strategic goals of your organization, you can anticipate the data that may be needed.
A strategic agenda helps to narrow the areas of focus and pinpoints what you may need during a board meeting to move a discussion along. Make sure this data is available to the board in advance so that decisions can be made effectively.
2. Solicit feedback on key issues prior to a board meeting
There is no excuse to come into a meeting unprepared and facing an unknown with your board. I have worked for Fortune 500 and 1000 companies, and I had to know not only the climate of the meeting I was facilitating but also the key issues and divisions within my leadership group.
Prior to a meeting where a major issue will be discussed, utilize a survey that goes out to the board and other constituencies to determine an overall strategy or path moving forward. Also, if membership temperature needs to be measured in advance, make sure that happens as well and that data is available.
3. Use data at a board meeting
It is difficult to dispute data from a survey that speaks to the overall needs and opinions of the board and other constituencies. Using survey and other data during a board meeting helps to give a voice to those who may be uncomfortable on your board to voice their opinions if you have larger than life personalities.
Also, it is powerful to say, "This is what you told us as a group and the overall consensus." It starts the discussion from a balanced place where everyone had a chance to voice an opinion.
4. Vet key data points after a board meeting
As we all know, board meetings should be a great place where strategy and direction is discussed in full alignment with the organization's strategic plan. Dreaming big and realistically is the purpose of the meeting while making key decisions as a fiduciary of the organization. Making decisions is what boards do, but a key thing is to ensure that after the board meeting, staff is reviewing the data and ensuring the "big dreams" are possible.
For example, creating a new event that will serve a new constituency in the organization may require new streams of funding, new types of members and additional staff resources. This information needs to be fully flushed out and presented at the next board meeting by staff before a decision to proceed is made.
Ideally, a pro-forma budget should be established to show how long the association will lose money and when it will make money. If the pro-forma budget over a period of three years or more does not show a payback, then the decision to move forward should be reviewed.
Also, setting this realistic expectation that money needs to be spent without a return in the beginning helps to take the pressure off immediate performance and puts the focus on building something that is going to have long-term effectiveness.
5. Review program effectiveness with data on a regular basis
In the last example, we discussed a new event that is anticipated to make a profit for the organization and increase member value and organizational relevance. If there is a decision to move forward after a pro-forma budget is established including solid business plan, then key success factors need to be identified at various points of the conference creation and execution.
If at any point the initiative is not meeting the key success factors, the board should be able to "pull the plug." Cutting your losses sooner than later is critical as most nonprofit organizations do not have a large reserve to absorb a major loss. Take a small loss and move on.
Viewing data as a "partner" in the success of your organization is the cornerstone for success. Data also helps to evaluate our past, make decisions in the present and to reliably predict future outcomes and success factors.
Although no one has a crystal ball, the board has a responsibility to be a steward of the organization and fulfill its legal fiduciary responsibility by thinking as far ahead as possible.
If we plan and succeed, we can attribute it to good data and decision-making. If we fail with good data, we can be reasonably assured that we make strong decisions to cut losses early rather than incur catastrophic losses.
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