Photo Source: Indianapolis Museum of Art Blog
Many of us have a love and hate relationship with nonprofit dashboards. We know the power of numbers that tell us where we are headed or how well we are doing. But we also know that numbers don't tell us the whole story - whether we headed in the right overall strategic direction, taking the right road, and how to get back on course if we get lost.
But, for the most part, nonprofit dashboard reports, if they are measuring the right metrics, are useful tools. Dashboards go beyond just reporting financial results as this post from the Blue Avocado explains. And, they can be incredibly useful for helping leaders to focus attention on critical mission matters.
Nonprofit dashboard reports, which communicate critical information in a concise, visual, and more compelling way, are mostly used by board or staff for discussion at internal or private meetings or used as part of reports back to funders for grants.
That's the cultural norm in the nonprofit sector, with a couple of exceptions. An organization's dashboard is an internal report and the data not shared publicly (although NTEN shared its Dashboard spreadsheet template recently).
The Indianapolis Art Museum has been doing just that by sharing its institutional dashboard out for everyone to view. I remember blogging about it when I first noticed it in November, 2007. It was met by with both positive and negative reactions from nonprofit and museum professionals. Jim Spadaccini from Ideum Blog noted that dashboards are not new, in fact, there's a book about Dashboard Design. He went on to describe the Museums' bold move as an example of sharing information in an unconventional way.
Do most nonprofit organizations do enough to share key information with the public? Is it risky to provide statistics about finances and results on a public Web site?
Two years later, we might have some answers. In October, the Indianapolis Art Museum Dashboard celebrated its' second year. The institution has continued to share its data and engage in conversations with the public on its blog about how to use the statistics to improve its programs.
To celebrate, Rob Stein, the CIO, has started a series of blog posts on transparency. Part 1 addresses the prevalent concern shared by their peers about adopting transparency, a fear of the unknown, or that sharing the gritty details with the public will be too overwhelming and therefore misconstrued. Rob goes on to say that nothing terrible has happened. I caught up with for a quick email interview:
Has your organization always been an "open" institution?
Prior to the IMA Dashboard and in particular the arrival of Maxwell Anderson as CEO in 2006, the IMA was more closed about sharing details about its performance. Max's leadership from the top of the organization was important in that he advocated a culture in which it was better to be open and understand areas of poor performance, so that we can take steps to improve... rather than hide behind rationalizations for why certain things were broken. I think all organizations have these broken areas, it's been refreshing to work in a culture where honesty and transparency about them is encouraged as a step towards continuous improvement.
What motivated the dashboard project?
To improve as an organization, we need to understand our baseline performance against things we care about. The Dashboard is both a way to communicate to donors and the press the truth behind how we're running the museum, but also a crucial tool for staff members to track their own performance over time, knowing that the world is (potentially) watching. The "openness" is a hair shirt that encourages us to stay on the straight-and-narrow, an external motivation to continue to do the right thing even when it has a negative appearance on the surface.
Were there any institutional concerns internally?
Certainly there were concerns initially, and there are limits to how open we can be. I made a suggestion in my blog post this morning that Transparency is the discipline of an organization to demonstrate its integrity. Obviously sharing certain types of information can be illegal or potentially damaging to the museums mission in a number of ways.
In general there were some concerns about the "unknown" factor of how it would be received, how it could be maintained, and what the long-term impact of doing so might be. I think we've resolved many of these over time. (The Dashboard turned 2 in October) We've certainly used the tool for performance tracking and press relations during that time...
What has been the response to "learning in public" when numbers don't go the right way?
We've certainly had our share of bad data to share in the last 12 months. The total value of our endowment took a significant beating as demonstrated in the online statistic. Couple that fact with our Contributed Support numbers which are displayed there, and its clear that this has not be the best financial period for the IMA. We also went through a restructuring which resulted in the elimination of a number of staff positions which is also indicated online. There were some gut-churning moments putting those numbers up, but they are really the proof-in-the-pudding and demonstrate that the dashboard isn't just a spin exercise for the museum's PR department.
On a positive note, sharing the negative statistics accurately gives us a GREAT platform to talk to donors and funding agencies about the realities of the IMA's financial situation, it's very clear that we are caring for the museum well as indicated online, but continue to need support from our community. It's great to let the facts make the case for you.
What does it feel like to be an open institution?
It's work, but overall feels really good. We're constantly figuring out ways to adjust / add to / drop statistics and information that is of the most value for continuing to improve the IMA as an organization. The Dashboard is a reflection of those areas we consider to be vital to the museum's mission. Large numbers of staff from the museum are responsible for updating statistics related to their areas... so these important metrics are frequently brought back to mind as they continue to track and update them online.
One big issue that I've seen nonprofits grapple with when they want to be more open is deciding what to share. Do you share everything? If not, how do you decide what to share?
As I mentioned above, integrity needs to be our guide in what information to put online. Obviously anything that breaks a law is out :) But we start from an assumption that all information is available to go online. We can then look at things to disqualify based on what impact this data can have on the museum. Admittedly, there are few hard and fast rules that govern this process, but it's important to start from a position of openness instead of approaching the problem from a protectionist view. More importantly choices about what to share are driven by which metrics will be the most important in helping the museum grow or improve as an organization. Which areas are the most critical to our mission. These are the areas we want to track and keep an eye on so that we ensure that we continue to improve and maintain excellence there.
Is Indiana Art Museum just an outlier exception or will this type of transparency for nonprofits become the cultural norm for our sector in the next five years? Are there other examples of nonprofit institutions opening the kimono to their dashboard and discussing results with stakeholders?
Update: More thoughts on transparency from the nptech blogosphere and beyond