How To Measure Your Highest Aspirations
As an educator, I have sometimes thought of assessment as a department’s tool for measuring students against rigid standards that ultimately serve to organize them into two groups—those who are performing in a satisfying manner and those who are not.
In his book The Social Profit Handbook, David Grant agrees that the word assessment makes most people think of state mandated testing or quantitative reports. He also acknowledges that nonprofits tend be uncomfortable with the idea of assessment since many rubrics, especially those forged in the for-profit sector, are focused on measuring some kind of economic return. However, since nonprofits aim for the difficult-to-quantify well-being of people, place, and planet rather than monetary gain, Grant suggests that social profit institutions need different approaches to measuring success.
Formative assessment is a tool that can help people within an organization define success and take steps toward their mission-driven concept of success. Grant believes that people are empowered when they define success for their organizations and create their own rubrics to help them assess their progress. He argues that “by expanding their approach to measuring success, social profit organizations have the best shot at defining a better world for all of us.”
It is no secret that social profit organizations are often under the scrutiny of diverse funders, which reinforces the idea that assessment is imposed onto organizations. However, when organizations create strategies based solely on a grant requirements, the mission of those organizations and needs of the community may be obscured while leadership scrambles to report quantifiable outcomes. Alternatively, Grant proposes that assessment precede action and be used to improve performance. He explains that “…if you decide what matters to you and take the time to describe what performance looks like in relation to what you value, you can start to measure how close you come to your vision of success.”
The process of defining success is time intensive, which is why few organizations have the chance to think thoughtfully, collectively, and regularly about where they are going, what they are going to do and not do, what they do best, and how they will go about it. Still, Grant strongly urges social profit organizations to invest in conversations about their mission and identify steps in how to achieve it.
This is where the book moves from theory to practical application. Grant includes outlines for how to have a conversation about mission and exercises on how to write a rubric from scratch. Although he defines rubrics –matrices that define criteria for success and describe levels of performance–in a traditional way, he suggests that they be used to describe success rather than to “prove” outcomes. In other words, rubrics are not standards of scientific measurement; they are maps that provide direction. He goes on to offer sample rubrics and demonstrates how they are applied at diverse organizations, including rubrics that are designed for 1. A single organization 2. An organization with multiple offices and 3. Multiple organizations cooperating and coordinating efforts.
Grant’s theoretical and practical discussion frames assessment not as a precise measurement of outcomes but as the beginning of a conversation about an organization’s highest aspirations, and it seems to me that this approach to assessment has extensive value. In establishing their own definitions of success, people within organizations can create a common vocabulary and reinforce a shared vision. Through the creation and application of a rubric, they can define their own benchmarks, which will allow them to plan and make decisions more effectively. In case this still seems more philosophical than practical, here are five simple steps that Grant describes in the final chapter:
1. Decide what you want and envision it.
2. If you can’t measure the success you envision in numbers, describe it—with your colleagues in a rubric.
3. Plan backward from that vision of success the rubric helps clarify.
4. Revise the rubric based on using it, and on your ongoing learning, and on new demands in a changing world.
5. Assess your progress toward your vision.
For more information about David Grant and formative assessment for mission-driven organizations, visit Grant’s website.
Summer Hess is assistant to Community Building founder Jim Sheehan and Special Projects maven. She is currently working remotely from New Zealand on a book discussing the origins and growth of the Saranac and Community Building. As part of her research she is reviewing books about sustainability and social profit enterprises while on her sojourn abroad.