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5 elements for selecting the right performance indicators

Depending on complexity, some outcomes can be studied relatively easily — such as total number of participants or meals served. You might be able to learn all you need to know from an existing graph of percentages or other traditional forms of data. But most outcomes are too big, broad and new to track so easily — such as increased awareness or behavior change. These must be broken down into much smaller pieces that can show progress across time.

These smaller pieces are called performance indicators. They're the things you see, hear, count, measure, report or otherwise track as data to show you're making progress.

Develop realistic performance indicators

Imagine a community garden initiative. If a primary outcome is increasing participants' knowledge of organic produce, how will we verify this is happening? What can we actually measure?

Start by focusing on the following sensory criteria:

  • How will you see the progress in your program? Focus on sight in all its iterations — an office organized more efficiently, recognition of a new logo that captures the heart of your program, a tutoring center full of students. What can you objectively observe?
  • How will you hear the change? Through one-on-one conversations? Focus groups? A slot on the radio?
  • How will you read the change? Reports? Surveys? Book publications?

Use the "means that" rule for performance indicators

Performance indicators directly in line with their outcomes can be proved based on this formula: the accomplishment of an indicator means that you have achieved your outcome. In the example of our community garden, we might track attendance records at introductory courses (indicator) which means that we've increased participants' knowledge of organic produce (outcome).

Develop a realistic plan

When you're thinking about performance indicators, be realistic. For example:

  • Start small and scale slowly. It's better to focus on tracking one truly useful indicator than to waste time on a dozen that don't really matter. You might have anywhere from one to three indicators for each outcome, which can feel daunting.
  • Make a list of the data you need to collect. Consider what you can realistically accomplish given your staff size and budget. Will you need to find additional funding? How long will that take?
  • Grow your team as needed. Ideally, your team has already been customized to fit the unique needs of your program. Roles might include project coordinator, expert in the field, teachers or other community officials. Depending on the workload, it can be difficult for an individual employee to take on this monitoring work in addition to his or her current responsibilities. You might need to budget extra time or even a full-time position — especially if you're trying to measure multiple programs.
  • Identify stakeholders. Whose lives will be most affected by changes to an existing program? Do you have their voice on the team? Consider whether you need to bring in an expert from outside the organization. Will your team need to do a significant amount of research to evaluate the program? Consider everyone's time as you weigh the importance of studying one program or another.

Beware of indicator limitations

Performance indicators are useful tools to measure progress, but there are limitations to their reach. As you implement your measurement strategy, remember:

  • It can be difficult to factor in soft outcomes, such as networking and local partnerships. These relationships might be critical for your organization, though they're hard to quantify.
  • Blindly following the numbers isn't enough. It takes critical thinking and decision-making skills to analyze what the numbers actually mean.
  • Some outcomes must be studied across years, or even decades. Try to strike a balance between long-term and short-term measurement or monitoring projects.

Then, consider this simple performance indicators checklist:

  • Are your indicators in line with the outcomes they're supposed to measure?
  • Are they specific and easily measurable?
  • How will you observe them and track the data?
  • Do you need to find additional funding to collect the information you need?



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.




Writer and firm believer in using business as a tool for positive change