How Should a Nonprofit Board Track Progress?

Since what you report and manage can lead to better performance – and better implementation of a nonprofit’s mission – I’m a fan of periodic housecleaning of Board reports.

Habit creeps up on all of us. In the case of nonprofits, a Board president may ask to see certain reports as part of the Board meeting packet. Time goes by, and another Board president asks for additional information to be reported. Pretty soon, the executive director’s email has six or seven attachments – the things that he or she is used to reporting plus the other wiggly bits that have been added.

What the Board tracks is vital to a nonprofit’s ultimate success – if for no other reason than it educates the Board as to what is most critical to organizational performance.

A nonprofit that decides it’s time for a Board report house-cleaning should consider these questions:

1) What are the best indicators that the nonprofit is on solid footing and making progress on its goals and/or strategic plan?

2) What’s Board level information?

3) What’s it look like? What’s the best way to focus the Board’s attention by appropriately formatting the report or reports?

I’m actually going to address my three questions in reverse order.

What’s it look like

One of the most helpful tools for organizational effectiveness is a Dashboard Indicators report. The term derived from car instrumentation; we rely on our speedometer, gas gauge, etc., to tell us how things are going when we’re driving, right? Dashboard indicators for organizations point us to the information that tells us if something is wrong (or right).

Much of Corporate America has been using some form of a Dashboard Indicators (trademarked name Balanced Scorecard) since Robert Kaplan and David Norton popularized the idea in the early 90s. Although originally developed as a tool for management, many corporate Boards receive and review quarterly versions of these reports.

Below is an example of a county government’s scorecard. Notice that they figured out the  indicators that they believe to be most important. Then they color-coded the indicators as to whether they were on target (green), at risk (yellow) or below target (red).

Is this a Board-level report? No. The Board needs something more streamlined that speaks to its role and responsibility.

What’s Board level information?

Higher level information, for one thing. Boards shouldn’t see all of the information that management does. It would not only be crazy-making for the Board members but tempt them to step in and manage rather than govern. They should protect the public interest by ensuring that the organization is using its nonprofit resources appropriately and in a way that sustains the mission, identifying risks to the organization’s mission and stability, approving the strategy and evaluating the nonprofit’s work. Not focusing on things like why a mailing cost $1,100 instead of $1,000.

So what are the best indicators?

Kaplan and Norton’s approach used categories to focus attention not just on financials, but the measurable processes and activities that are required to deliver on the customer value proposition. For example, without a reliable and prepared supply of volunteers, many nonprofits couldn’t deliver their programs, so it’s critical to keep an eye on volunteer resources.

Typically dashboard indicators include four categories: financial, customers, operational business processes, and learning and growth (I tend to call this last one “organizational capacity”). Financial is pretty self explanatory. Operational business processes include things the organization must be really good at to deliver its programs while “customers” takes a little bit broader view of the value proposition and includes management of the brand. (Many businesses end up combining these in some fashion because of overlap, or just assigning some indicators to one bucket or another.)  Organizational capacity indicators include the activities that are critical to the organization’s continuity of internal management; it includes indicators or activities related to the technology platform, for example.

I don’t think the buckets are that critical, but they can help nudge management and the Board that there’s more to protecting the mission than the money. A whole system of moving parts – from internal capacities to operations – drives financial performance.

How does that translate to a nonprofit? It depends on the nonprofit and its funding model. An organization that receives government funding to provide a service will have a very different dashboard than one that provides compassionate relief services and is funded largely by individual donations.

I don’t want to complete wimp out on you and not offer some specifics, so here are 10 Board-level indicators that are important to many nonprofits:

1) Reserve operating funds – For many nonprofits, reserves are what allow the organization to smooth out nasty bumps like loss of a grant. This is a link to an example operating reserve policy provided by the Nonprofits Assistance Fund.

2) Gross “profit” % (also called contribution to overhead) – Management certainly needs to look at days of cash on hand and surplus or deficit compared to budget, but I think it’s important for nonprofits to realize they can’t be break even. They have to generate some surplus in order to pay for improvements to plant and technology, for example. A business might look at gross profit (revenue minus operating expense, divided by revenue). So, yes, nonprofits should track this number, expressed as a ratio, in the single digits (the number depends on the budget).

3) Revenue diversification – We’ve all heard stories about nonprofits that lost a big grant on which they depended for 50 or 60% of program revenues. Depending on the nonprofit’s funding model, it should have a target “mix” in mind, e.g. the % from individual donations, the % from grants, and the % from its major fundraising event.

4) Donor growth or average gift growth – A nonprofit may have plenty of donors, but a fairly small average gift size, or it could see its future strength coming from attracting more/new donors. What the right indicator is depends on the nonprofit’s situation, but it needs one or more indicators that reflect its fundraising strategy.

5) Program efficiency – Large funders are becoming savvier shoppers. They want to know that a program is achieving real long-term outcomes and that it is a good or better approach relative to others. Now is the time to start considering how many clients were served for the money (including some allocation of overhad).

6) Client service/satisfaction – The problem with measuring long-term outcomes is, well, they’re long term. Nonprofits have to translate the outcomes they hope to achieve into mid-term and short-term indicators such as the percent of clients completing a program and client satisfaction.

7) Volunteer supply or growth – For nonprofits that depend on volunteers to deliver their programs, tracking volunteer supply vs. budget and volunteer growth (net of attrition) are important indicators.

8) Meeting (big) contract standards – If the nonprofit has government funding for a program, there will be specific standards in the signed scope document.

9) Training completion – Hopefully the nonprofit has a documented process for delivering services, with expectations down to the employee or volunteer level. Ensuring that 100% of employees or volunteers is trained according to the organization’s service standards would be a worthy indicator.

10) Strategic goals or big project milestone tracking – If the organization has an approved strategic direction with specific objectives, or has budgeted for a big capital improvement, it would be appropriate to include high-level milestones in the dashboard indicators report.

Here are some more thoughts from’s Board cafe.

Technology to the rescue: business intelligence tools

Believe it or not, dashboards are a baby step (but a really, really important one). If your organization has absorbed the idea of paying attention to a limited number of critical indicators, it may be time to consider tools that make the job easier. has a great page about business intelligence tools you should check out.

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