What Gauges Belong on Your Dashboard?

I led a workshop this morning called “Monitoring Your Financial Health” that covers a variety of methods for interpreting and analyzing nonprofit financial reports. The group read and compared reports, calculated income, expense and balance sheet ratios, and reviewed key indicators. When we talked about how to communicate the financial analysis to management teams and boards of directors I distributed a few samples of executive summary and dashboard reports. As always, several of the workshop evaluations listed these reports as a highlight of the materials. The idea of dashboard reports has been around for a long time in business and nonprofit management. (For a good introduction to the concept see these articles from CompassPoint’s Board Cafe and the October 12, 2006 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

I think that the reasons that workshop participants respond so strongly to the reports are their clarity and simplicity. Ideally, a dashboard report conveys in one page the key indicators for the organization and relates those indicators to goals, historical information, or benchmarks. The people in my workshop today know that this type of report is one that every nonprofit board wants to have.

So why don’t we all have dashboard reports? We don’t because they are very hard to develop. The art to creating a good dashboard is identifying what information really matters. The dashboard in your car shows you the speed, fuel level, oil pressure, blinkers, and warning lights. Think of all the other information that could be displayed as well – but isn’t – because too much information is overload. To create a valuable summary or dashboard tool you have to cull through all the possibilities and select the five to eight key indicators that convey the most important measures for your nonprofit organization.

I use two example reports in the workshop. One of the examples is for an organization in the middle of turnaround after several years of financial problems, and the other is an organization that is healthier financially seeking to diversity its contributor base. These nonprofits have very different key indicators. One watches cash and payables closely while the other needs more information on development.

The other challenging task to developing good dashboards is selecting appropriate goals or benchmarks. These deserve some focus because the wrong goal can send you in the wrong direction. One well-intentioned but problematic benchmark that I’ve seen at many organizations is the goal of building a cash reserve equal to three to six months of operating expenses. It’s a terrific goal, of course, but it’s unrealistic for boards to expect a nonprofit to build that level of unrestricted cash balance in one year or less. Fieldstone Alliance published a good book last year on identifying appropriate and useful measures, Benchmarking for Nonprofits.

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