A case for inputs

Recently, I attended an event organized for Corporate Philanthropists to share best practices. While there, I witnessed profound confusion about what the best key performance indicators (KPIs) should be to gauge the success of employee engagement programs.

There was an almost snobbish bias in the room that, of course, everyone knows – employee engagement’s success can ONLY be MEANINGFULLLY measured by impact (community change) rather than input (the number of volunteers and volunteer hours corporate volunteers contributed). One presenter went as far as to suggest that anyone measuring inputs was “stuck in the 1990’s.” Truly forward thinking corporations, she said, measure impact. I beg to differ.

At Matchfire, we rely on data-driven insights coupled with experience-sharpened instincts to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. In doing this, we shape attitudes and inspire action and advocacy. Through this, we have learned that what you need to measure is defined by what you hope to accomplish.

In the 22 years I spent as an executive with a global nonprofit focused on volunteerism and civic engagement, extremely committed volunteers and community organizers were often critical of “done-in-a-day” service projects and corporate days of service. This critical stance perplexed me—everyone needs a place to start.

Not everyone that comes to volunteerism is ready to make a long-term commitment. Some volunteers participating in large-scale corporate days of service are volunteering for the first time. It’s important for them to have a good experience, to understand how their contribution connects to a larger whole and to want to return. We used to say that ‘service is a journey.’ Chris Jarvis of Realized Worth describes a volunteer’s journey as “a path from Tourist to Traveler to Guide” and he suggests that 70% of a corporation’s employee volunteer program participants will remain at the tourist level forever. If that’s the case, what of this 70%? What KPIs apply to the lion’s share of an employee engagement program?

I would argue that employee engagement programs – and even more broadly, corporate philanthropy – have their own, similar continuum. Some corporations give their time and money to able nonprofits with a faith that the organization will use the resources wisely. In this case, demonstrable community impact is the responsibility of the nonprofit partner. Other corporations seek a deeper and more direct connection to the impact their contributions of time and talent make against a particular social issue. Neither approach is right or wrong.

Measuring the success of an employee engagement program cannot be boiled down to measuring input or impact. Instead, success must be defined against the company’s stated goal. Companies leveraging employee engagement to build morale and develop workforce skills should absolutely monitor the number of employees participating and the net change in their morale and skill sets. Companies determined to decrease hunger in communities where they live and work would measure both input as well as impact results.

The problem becomes who will measure community impact – you? Or will you pass that responsibility along to your nonprofit partner? If you ask your nonprofit partner to provide the impact measurements, are you paying for that service in your grant? Are you prepared to pay for a longitudinal study that might track the success of a group of tutored students across their K-12 education?

Ask yourself how the community impact measurement you’re trying to track connects to your business goals. Does it? If it doesn’t, it may not be your mission to track and measure that impact. That doesn’t mean your company can’t be committed to the cause. It just might mean that you trust the nonprofit professionals whose job it is to effect change to do so while you provide the fuel, the inputs.

Don’t let anyone tell you that measuring input is less important than measuring impact – unless they’re connecting their reason for telling you so to your stated philanthropic goals.

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