While most associations try to develop metrics to monitor progress in achieving their strategic goals, few are able to find a good way to measure impact and outcomes.
This means metrics tend to default to process indicators—did we do what we said we would do? Or they rely on metrics of organizational health—did we make budget, add to reserves, increase membership or registrations? These are certainly good indicators an organization continues to move in the right direction. But they are not good proxies for determining whether effort applied created the desired outcome.
Many professional societies consider education and knowledge exchange core missions. Determining whether that education experience or journal article or data changed individual knowledge and behaviors is difficult to prove, much less determining whether the collective impact of all those individuals led to the desired outcome.
Even when associations operate in arenas like public health and safety where governments take an active interest in quantifying the current state of affairs, all these associations can say with any confidence is whether things are getting better or worse. Their work might correlate nicely with the outcomes, but they rarely are able to say definitively what their efforts contributed to that outcome.
Well-financed associations and nonprofits can turn to public opinion polls to assess the impact of their efforts. Scholars and statisticians have written volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of polling. They can be informative and even insightful and yet come up short explaining why or what next.
Does this mean associations and nonprofits should give up trying to find impact measures? No, but it should challenge them to be very clear in defining the desired outcome of any goal and think deeply and creatively about what metrics might approximate what they really want to know.
And association leaders should be honest about what most common association metrics actually measure. Hitting measures of organizational health are critical to having the human and financial resources to pursue any mission. Successfully executing strategies prove they are acting in ways they believe will help them achieve their goals.
Unfortunately it is possible to get a lot of work done and make the numbers without ever achieving the association’s larger mission for members and society. Getting that job done is what matters most in the final analysis.