Measuring effectiveness in nonprofit arts organizations: An inside look at the methods used by arts leaders for tracking success in their organizations
March 22, 2022
American actor, writer, and director Ossie Davis once said, “Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect a change – it can not only move us, it makes us move.” The overarching goal of any nonprofit arts organization should be to make an impact, right? But in order to know if your organization is achieving its desired impact, there needs to be efficient methods in place for measuring effectiveness.
In a recent Forbes article on measuring nonprofit effectiveness, Evan Feinberg made the statement that too often nonprofits are focused on measuring the incorrect variables resulting in an ineffective measurement system. He writes, “I think it’s time for a new measurement system that not only tells us whether the social sector works well but actually makes the social sector more efficient and effective.”
So what is the best way to measure effectiveness in a nonprofit arts organization?
As a graduate student in arts leadership, I have been learning about ways to measure effectiveness in nonprofit organizations, specifically in the arts sector. In William A. Brown’s Strategic Management in Nonprofit Organizations, he asserts that the ideal measurement of effectiveness is mission fulfillment. Measuring “mission fulfillment” can be challenging though and “potentially problematic due to cost or conceptual limitations.” Other popular alternative methods include focusing on the outcomes of programming or an organization’s ability to secure resources, but these also come with limitations. In his book, Brown concludes that the most reasonable way to measure effectiveness is by assessing the organization’s ability to provide value to key stakeholders. His logic: “If people think you are effective, then you are effective.” Feinberg seems to support Brown’s conclusion stating, “the best way to gauge the social sector’s effectiveness is to ask its users whether it’s effective for them.”
The question I have been asking myself, however, is how does Brown’s approach compare with what methods leaders in the field are actually implementing? In order to gain greater insight into this question, I conducted an informal survey to the field. I collected responses from a small, yet insightful group of arts leaders in theatres, global collectives, and arts advocacy organizations.
In order to measure something, you must first know what you are trying to measure. So what does effectiveness even mean to leaders in the arts field? Survey respondents indicated that to them, organizational effectiveness may be defined as…
- Making notable steps towards achieving mission and providing value to stakeholders.
- Meeting budgeted goals, achieving patron satisfaction, providing mission-centric programming, and reaching numerous stakeholders.
- Having an impact, which isn’t always visible or tangible.
- Achieving measures of success by utilizing an anticipated and/or acceptable pool of resources.
- Impacting stakeholders while adhering to an individual or organization's mission and values.
An organization’s mission statement defines its purpose and serves as a guiding principle in all decisions. Based on the responses of arts leaders surveyed, working towards, and achieving the organization’s mission is at the core of being effective. But what does mission fulfillment actually look like in different organizations?
- Supporting youth and their co-conspirators to create a more just world and systemic change that impacts school boards and legislatures.
- Being the state that is first in the nation for the public investment in the arts and one where the arts, culture, and creative industry drives a municipality’s vision for its own future - to build a healthy, just, vibrant, and creative community for residents and visitors alike.
- Knowing we are reflecting our community, instilling profound empathy, and fostering personal discovery.
- Providing every student with access to the arts and any patron who wished being able to come see a show.
- Ensuring all youth have access to robust arts education to enable them to create change.
Because each organization I surveyed has different values and goals, mission fulfillment looks different to each organization; however, I see a common thread among them: prioritizing the community and their stakeholders.
Since tracking mission fulfillment can be problematic, I wondered if arts organizations even try to track it. If so, what does that look like? The arts leaders who responded to my survey provided a range of comments to this question.
- We evaluate whether or not a project matches our goals and values and weigh the pros and cons of each project.
- Overall we aim for a project to accommodate more than contradict our mission, but this is not necessarily a quantified rigid evaluation; it can be intuitive.
- We assess the outcome of every legislative session as to the level of public investment in the arts and immediately begin ascertaining and then planning on how to improve, grow, and strengthen our organization and our agenda between sessions.
- We don't track mission fulfillment in real time, but we do review our work quarterly and then annually as we plan for the next chunk of time.
- We don’t track mission fulfillment.
- We assess mission fulfillment through surveys.
The responses showed that some organizations very specifically track mission fulfillment, while others either spend less resources on it or don’t track it at all. This may very well be due to the fact that mission fulfillment can be difficult to measure.
Despite its limitations, outputs of programming are commonly used by organizations to measure effectiveness. So how do the arts leaders I surveyed measure if and how program activity is effective?
- Through the rates of attendance, post-event survey feedback, ongoing levels of participation, or other measures depending on the intended program. Each program has different and unique measures of success or engagement.
- It meets its goals without requiring a drastic excess of resources in addition to those planned and agreed upon when it first began.
- It hits its project specific goals that are aligned with our mission.
- It meets its budget and fulfills a part of our mission.
- The fact that the program even happened.
Brown asserts that the most reasonable measurement for effectiveness is that value is provided to key stakeholders, which he defines as “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objectives.” If this is indeed the best method of measurement, do arts organizations collect feedback from their stakeholders?
Collecting feedback from stakeholders, mostly through testimonials and surveys, seemed to be prioritized by most of the organizations I examined. Leaders either regularly pursue stakeholder feedback or are currently working towards more effective ways of collecting it. This once again emphasizes the important role that the community plays in nonprofit arts organizations. Without the support of an audience, program attendees, and donors, arts organizations would cease to exist.
Now that we’ve taken a closer look at the definition of effectiveness, what constitutes successful programming, and the role of stakeholders in arts organizations, how do arts leaders actually measure effectiveness in their organization as a whole?
- If we are effective in our work, we see an increase in appropriations for our state arts agency. Additional methods for measuring effectiveness around serving our members is monitoring social media/communication analytics to ensure we are growing our organization at all times while increasing the diversity of our own organization and those we serve.
- We do a lot of qualitative evaluation and reflection in a variety of formats. We also complete a process called Adaptive Impact Planning every few years to evaluate our current mission/visions/goals and ensure that our outputs and outcomes are aligned.
- We monitor the resources allocated to each project. We also have tools to assess how each project aligns with our organization values.
What are some of the obstacles arts organizations face when trying to measure effectiveness?
- While some of our measurements are quantitative, others are more qualitative. Measuring the impact of increased resources for the arts can be difficult to assess - as the outcomes are not simple.
- Tools and timing – it's challenging to get people to answer surveys, and conversations only capture a small subset of our patrons and stakeholders.
- Time – we have so much day-to-day work to do that it's a challenge to develop a formal system for tracking and measuring impact.
Responses indicated a common obstacle: lack of resources. Whether this is time, money, or people, limited resources can make a huge impact on how leaders would like to measure effectiveness versus how they realistically and resourcefully can.
From my survey, I confirmed that nonprofit arts organizations tend to use a mixture of mission fulfillment, programming activity, and stakeholder feedback to measure their effectiveness. But is this method working or is the current process truly as ineffective as Feinberg believes? Should nonprofit organizations focus on one primary method of measurement as Brown describes? I think the answer is different for each organization based on their current situation. To me, the responses from my survey revealed that every participating organization has different priorities, needs, and resources, which ultimately impacts how and to what extent it measures effectiveness. While Feinberg indicated that the nonprofit sector as a whole needs to establish a more efficient way to measure effectiveness, I don’t think there is a “one-size-fits-all” approach; each organization needs a uniquely tailored method. At the end of the day, however, the most important thing is that an organization is working towards its mission and using the position and voice it has to make an impact on its surrounding community.
Ashley Pope is a graduate student in the MFA in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.
A special thanks to Ernie Nolan (Nashville Children’s Theatre), Bridget Woodbury (Creative Generation), and additional arts leaders who wished to remain anonymous for assisting with my survey.