The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 19, 2013

PerformWell: An online resource to help nonprofits become evidence-based

Nonprofits and government agencies are facing greater demand to demonstrate performance and report evidence of effectiveness. At the same time, resources are becoming harder to come by. These pressures are likely to further mount in the face of increasing fiscal restraint as well as increasing demand from the highest levels of the federal government for evidence-based practice.

Focus on the use of data to improve programmatic outcomes is a theme that cuts across the wide variety of policy areas the Urban Institute covers. Recently, Senior Vice President of Program Planning and Management Margery Turner posted here on the need for more diverse strategies to pursue evidence-based policy at the government level. The challenges for nonprofits are not all that different.

To demonstrate its effectiveness, an organization must first engage in ongoing performance management. While performance management is similar to the better-known practice of program evaluation, a chapter of Mario Morino’s book Leap of Reason written by Kristin A. Moore, Karen Walker, and David Murphey at Child Trends lays out how performance management differs from evaluation. Most notably, while evaluation tends to be a one-time study by an external entity, performance management is conducted internally and on an ongoing basis.

Perhaps driven by the promise of “big data,” there has been much emphasis placed on collecting data, particularly driven by funders seeking evidence that their investments are paying dividends.  However, very few resources exist to guide the nonprofit practitioner in the next step: managing and ultimately improving performance using that data.

Hoping to fill this void, the Urban Institute partnered with Child Trends and Social Solutions to develop PerformWell. Tailored to specific program areas like mentoring, school-based bullying prevention, and civic engagement for youth, PerformWell provides practical knowledge that nonprofit practitioners can use to manage performance on a day-to-day basis, and internally collect and analyze real-time data to guide the continuous improvement of the organization. PerformWell helps practitioners identify performance outcomes and tools to measure those outcomes, as well as effective practices in managing service delivery. The information in PerformWell leverages research-based findings that have been synthesized and simplified by experts in the field. The content is limited to human services programs primarily engaged in youth development, but the PerformWell team aims to expand that focus over time.

The Self-Sufficiency Matrix, one of the site’s most popular tools, is a great example of how PerformWell is used in practice. Developed by Dr. Diana Pearce of the University of Washington, it is designed to improve on the standard definition of poverty by capturing whether a family can meet its basic needs without public assistance, taking geographic location and household composition into account. It features 25 questions about a variety of needs such as housing, mental health, employment, and access to services. The tool is free, easy to use, and can be downloaded as a PDF from the PerformWell website.

As it happens, sectoral awareness of the need for nonprofit performance management is growing. A 2012 report by the American Youth Policy Forum highlights three youth development organizations that have implemented this process effectively, shares their most effective practices, and pulls out the key lessons. Each of these organizations clearly articulated a theory of change, engaged in systematic data collection mirroring program needs, and demonstrated a strong commitment to training all staff in data collection and data use. One of those organizations, Roca, was featured in an August 2012 PerformWell webinar offering an introduction to the key concepts and practices of performance management.

The reception to PerformWell has been encouraging and supports the notion that nonprofits need these types of resources—and that they want to be responsive to growing demands for accountability. Since PerformWell’s launch less than a year and a half ago, the site has had nearly 100,000 unique visitors. It currently averages about 10,000 visits per month, and our assessment tools have been downloaded more than 39,000 times. PerformWell webinars have averaged more than a thousand registrants.

The webinars were developed to introduce new content and to educate nonprofits and funders on various technical aspects of performance management. Next up is “Becoming Evidence-Based,” this Thursday, August 22 from 3:00-4:30pm EDT. Click here to register for that webinar, and here to view archives of all previous PerformWell webinars

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.