Good grief, good governance

I don’t think about non-profit board governance much. My focus is on what happens on the ground, what impact an organization is having in the world. Boards are too far removed from the real action for me.

But a conversation I had with a person I hold in high regard who works at a San Francisco foundation got me thinking differently. In my work at Idealistics I help organizations not only design data collection systems but also interpret their data. My hope is that my company’s hands-on approach not only assists organizations in determining whether what they are doing is working or not, but also helps them decide how they should change to get better.

The problem, as anyone who has had a report as the ultimate deliverable of a contract can tell you, is that you can’t necessarily dictate how people react to information. By and large when I give customers good news they are happy, and when I give customers bad news they are sad. Neither reaction is terribly sophisticated nor helpful in advancing an agency’s mission.

The challenge for my company has been figuring out how to evolve from report writers to change advocates. My friend at the foundation I mentioned above suggested that perhaps I have been having a hard time getting organizations to react to outcomes indicators because I have been presenting my information to only a subset of the people in the agencies I work with.

I think about my customers as being the organizations that hire my firm, but realistically we are hired by management within these organizations. Since management tends to be our point of contact, we report all results to management.

But an organization necessarily consists of more than day-to-day managers. There is of course the front-line staff, but there is also the board. My foundation friend suggested that perhaps I should consider not only handing off a report to management, but seeing if I could present findings to the board.

Boards are well positioned to grapple with larger strategic issues and have the power to guide managerial decision making. Considering that a primary function of the board is to hold the agency accountable for fulfilling its stated social mission, board synthesis of client outcomes metrics seems a logical fit.

However, she said, boards often don’t know much about what client indicators are available. The traditional purview of boards has been setting executive compensation and governance rules, important tasks for sure. But as the sector moves toward a more evaluation focused ethic, it is not only important that boards become more aware of evaluation in general and their agencies’ outcomes in particular, it might very well be imperative.

Data is only useful when it is synthesized and put into action. Going forward I will try to engage not only management in discussions about client outcomes, but boards as well.

If boards can pressure management to better react to outcomes indicators, then the next step in good governance might just be giving managers good grief.