I remember hearing Hazel Henderson, author of Paradigms of Progress, speak many years ago at a sustainability conference. She suggested that operating the American economy with GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was like flying a Boeing 747 with just one instrument, a speedometer. It doesn’t tell you much about how you are doing in a triple bottom-line, sustainable way. I liked the metaphor but also like the application to managing a non-profit or government agency or business.
Too often we manage a parks, zoo, museum or nature center by monitoring only the total attendance. Attendance is important but it is not the only thing and may not be the most important indicator of success.
I am always an advocate for knowing what indicators matter in our work. Do we want more attendance, increased donations, improved feedback on experiences, more volunteers, less vandalism, longer stays in a facility, more members, more advocacy or what? I still don’t think the vague hope that we are making a difference with our work endears us to budget managers. Too many organizations count people who go through their facilities with no sense of what that means. Perhaps our bathrooms were the real appeal or the only appeal in some cases.
A logic model with carefully identified indicators of change that you update each year provides an annual checkup, but we can’t manage businesses by monitoring only once a year. You need some sort of real or virtual dashboard with multiple measures of success. The good news is there are tools to do this if you want to do it virtually with software. Just use a search engine with keywords “dashboard software.” If you are skilled with business software, you might like working with one of these and they do allow you to share a visual dashboard over an Internet site easily. They are somewhat expensive and require some technology skill.
I am more of an advocate for low-tech solutions like putting charts and graphs up on a bulletin board, but I have always managed an office or site where that was easy to do. I think having a dashboard of sorts, with the varied measures of success posted monthly is a good idea. I also like talking about the most important indicators at each weekly staff meeting to keep everyone focused on what allows us to succeed as an organization.
The great thing about a good dashboard is that it’s encouraging. You can manage your work and adjust variables until you see improvement. Flying blind seems easy until you crash. We have seen too many interpretive organizations become last year’s story during budget cuts. Good intentions often do not survive the hard decisions of what to keep, what to let go. Creating the dashboard with input from staff and your supervisors is a great way to find consensus about what success will look like in measurable terms. It’s not as easy as just counting bodies through the door but it’s more sustainable.