Metrics that matter

What gets measured, gets done, right?

We know that setting strategies that will move the association forward is a key responsibility of the board.

And certainly, board reports are often very detailed (sometimes excruciatingly so). There is no shortage of metrics.

But do they answer the most important question of all: are we moving towards meeting our mission?

Typically not. And that’s often because the board set strategies without a means to measure their success at a level that’s actually strategic.

So why do association measures so often only focus on small stakes?

Here are some common challenges I’ve seen with associations in measuring progress at the strategic level.

Measuring outputs, not outcomes

At the strategic level, we care about what happens in the end, not what we do to get there.

What we want to know is what happens as a result of actions we may take. The activities may change, depending on the results they achieve. But the end goal isn’t to do the activities; it’s to get the result.

Not just more newsletters being read – but more members, more of them seeing value in their membership, perhaps more of them willing to recommend the association to a colleague.

Not just more publications (guidelines, standards, white papers) – but signs that practice is actually adopting innovations.

Not just more press releases sent out – but more of our desired changes in policy.

Which leads us to…

Strategic metrics get confused with individual performance review

The level of accountability for metrics has to correspond to the ability of the individual to influence them. So absolutely you might hold a communications coordinator accountable for getting a certain number of newsletters a year out to the membership – that is, did they produce the things they were supposed to? You might even want to measure that person by the open rate of those newsletters – that is, did they produce something that was any good?

But at the strategic level, we have to think about whether what we did matters. Whether it makes a difference in the long run to our viability and sustainability and relevance and value as an organization.

It’s important both to set the strategic measures at the right level, and also ensure that staff understand where they are going to be held accountable.

The Chief Staff Officer and the board are accountable at the top levels (but even so, the strategic metrics are not equal to the CSO’s performance review). Senior staff might be accountable there as well; junior staff are typically accountable for their activities, not necessarily for outcomes.

This reflects the degree of influence each level will have on selecting the activities to undertake.

Getting stuck on measurement

Some data is incredibly expensive to gather; some is difficult or impossible to obtain at any cost. But I’d still argue that you should start by articulating your ideal metric, and then figure out how to measure it.

  • Is it very long-term? Pick some interim measures that will give you a sense of whether you’re on the right track.
  • Is it hard or prohibitively expensive to measure? Pick some proxies – if you want to measure the degree of respect your association commands with others in the field, what meetings do you get invited to, what media calls you for a quote, do others sign off on your processes (such as examinations or certifications)?
  • Is it difficult to measure quantitatively? Qualitative assessment is completely reasonable. Simply including the requirement to make a qualitative assessment of your progress on a particular dimension is the trigger for a conversation at the board level, and that sometimes can be incredibly helpful.

Not measuring at all

If you have identified what metrics matter for your strategies, then you have to actually use them! They should form the basis for annual reporting to the board, at the time of a strategic review (annually). They should be the measures the board is talking about when it holds itself accountable for the success of its strategies during its annual self-evaluation.

If you set metrics, and they only exist in the original strategic plan, you’ve wasted your time.

If these metrics are moving in the right direction, the board should have some confidence that the association is making progress on fulfilling its mission.

And ultimately, that’s what the board’s main responsibility is.

In a future post, I’ll discuss how to set metrics that measure both your overall progress and your signposts along the way.

If you’d like to talk about how you can set strategies and measure their success, please get in touch.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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