NGOs should measure how well they are contributing to other people’s efforts using a combination of feedback and scope indicators.
The best way to measure how well an NGO is contributing to other people’s efforts is to ask them. Feedback systems can generate performance data on many aspects of an NGO’s work, such as:
- The quality and number of services received by local people
- The credibility and understanding of the NGO
- Staff attitudes and behaviours
- Changes in people’s lives, e.g. income, opportunities or confidence
- Influence in changing policies
- Unintended consequences and people’s priorities for the future
How do we know if [the people] are better off, whether they gain or lose from our projects? The answer is to ask them. They are the experts on their own condition.” Robert Chambers, 2009
Similar to ‘customer satisfaction’, these indicators can be quantified and benchmarked. They can be disaggregated by gender or other social group. They are not objective and need to be triangulated and interpreted with care.
Many NGOs are already using feedback systems (see examples). Each one is based on a specific instrument, setting out what to ask respondents and how. The instruments have to be creatively designed for different contexts, in dialogue with respondents, so they are relevant and accessible.
Using feedback puts local people and other collaborators in the driving seat, demonstrating that their opinions matter. It creates incentives for staff to be collaborative, responsive and empowering – not just to complete pre-planned activities.
Like all participatory processes, it is generally not be easy to hear from the poorest and most marginalised people. Care must be taken to avoid the loudest voices dominating. The results need to be carefully interpreted with judgement.
… the key to ending gender discrimination and structural inequality is accountability. Women must be empowered to hold policy-makers answerable for their promises, and if they fail to deliver, to call for corrective action” Anne Marie Goetz, 2008
NGOs should also measure the scope of their activities, such as the quantity of services delivered or the number of people they work with. They should assess technical quality and monitor their financial position along with whether key milestones are achieved.
A small number of indicators should be selected that produce cost-effective data that will actually be used. Indicators should create incentives for staff to focus on what matters most. The costs and benefits of assessment need to be carefully considered for all people involved.
The assessment process also provides an opportunity for people to reflect on achievements and plan priorities for the future.
It is a recipe for disaster to use initial activity plans as the basis for assessing performance, creating incentives that squash flexibility and responsiveness and generating mountains of unhelpful performance data.
See the feedback examples for a variety of practical tools used by NGOs.
| Focusing on ‘impact’ can encourage NGOs to measure their performance through indicators of long term social change, like poverty rates. These take years to emerge, often longer than a project lasts. They are expensive to measure. They are normally influenced by many factors outside an NGOs’ control. They have not proved a good basis for managing performance.