Balancing Accountability and Learning Using Dashboards

With ambitious goals and long-term agendas, some foundations struggle to describe their progress and impact to stakeholders. But in recent years, we have seen how dashboards can be useful tools to address this challenge.

We have helped several of our foundation clients build dashboards. In that work, we have seen how dashboards allow funders to address both accountability and learning needs. Foundations can use dashboards to address their accountability to the community, partners, or a Board of Directors by sharing data about the impact of their investments. At the same time, tracking indicators of progress over time can also support ongoing learning and reflection among grantees, foundation staff, and the broader field.

Our work with the DentaQuest Foundation, the nation’s largest oral health funder, reflects the benefits of a programmatic dashboard. The Foundation’s mission is to improve oral health for all. It views oral health as a social justice issue and believes that everyone should have the same opportunity to live a healthy life.

Recently, we helped the DentaQuest Foundation develop a dashboard to track national progress on a set of seven well-articulated, quantifiable goals that the Foundation and its grantees set out to achieve by 2020 – their Oral Health 2020 goals. Three of those goals were:

1. With the closing of disparity gaps, at least 85% of children reach age 5 without a cavity.

2. The 10 largest school districts in the US have incorporated oral health into their systems.

3. At least 30 states have an extensive adult dental benefit in their Medicaid program.

And here is how we represented those goals—and the measures used to track progress on those goals—in the Foundation’s dashboard:

DQ Dashboard

We started our dashboard work with the DentaQuest Foundation with a set of four questions we find useful for building dashboards with philanthropy partners.

1. Why do you want to build a dashboard? It’s important to establish a clear understanding about the motivation for creating and using a dashboard. Is it a desire to cultivate internal learning, demonstrate accountability to a foundation board, or both? Is the motivation a feeling of obligation to the community, or a desire for transparency? Foundations are often driven by one reason more than others, but ultimately, other uses for the dashboard become apparent. For example, a foundation might want to share their successes with the community and in the process discover that the dashboard can support learning among staff and accountability to the foundation’s board.

2. Who is your audience? Dashboards can be useful tools for a range of audiences: staff, board members, grantees, the community, and other funders. In some cases, a single dashboard will work across audiences. Other times, addressing different audiences will compel you to develop multiple dashboards. A community-facing dashboard might highlight place-based work, while a dashboard designed for internal learning might include process measures that aren’t interesting or meaningful to community members.

The website of Graduate Tacoma, an initiative to raise high school graduation and college degree rates in Tacoma, WA, is a good example of a community-facing dashboard. We’ve also used dashboards to support reflection sessions with community members in our work with First 5 LA. In our example above, the DentaQuest Foundation uses a single dashboard for its board, staff, grantees, and the broader field.

3. What do you want to measure? Before developing a dashboard, we often step back and review a foundation’s theory of change or the goals articulated in a strategic plan. Foundations tend to be interested in different kinds of measures:

  • Process measures such as how many people attended programs offered by grantees;
  • Outcomes directly attributable to grantees’ work, such as how many program participants reported behavior change; or
  • Broader outcomes that grantee work might have contributed to, such as improvements in a community health indicator.

Not every change that foundations are working towards can be measured by numbers – stories are also valuable for understanding why our measures are important. We have found that including qualitative data in dashboards, in addition to showing quantitative change over time, paints a much richer picture of a foundation’s impact. The dashboard we created for the DentaQuest Foundation includes both quantitative measures like the number of children in the U.S. who reach age 5 without a cavity, and qualitative measures like compiling the actions that states are taking to secure an extensive adult dental benefit in Medicaid.

4. How will you convey impacts you might have contributed to and impacts that are attributable to your work? Foundations often grapple with the question of contribution or attribution. Nationally, we might see progress towards a goal, but did a foundation’s investment directly contribute toward that goal? Could it have been achieved without that investment?

The DentaQuest Foundation’s Oral Health 2020 dashboard shows progress toward goals that can be directly attributed to the work of Foundation grantees as well as progress grantees have contributed to as part of a larger movement. For example, the dashboard shows the states that have and do not have an extensive adult dental benefit in Medicaid alongside qualitative data about the work that grantees are doing to advance that goal. Many factors contribute toward this goal, including the work of legislators championing oral health agendas and political climates that favor the expansion of adult dental benefits. It was important to the DentaQuest Foundation that we include this measure, to clearly show its contribution to these outcomes.

In addition to these four steps, a final, essential element for creating a good dashboard is a strong, collaborative relationship among the stakeholders who contribute to this work. For the DentaQuest Foundation, it has taken more than five years of network-building to get to a place where they could establish shared measures that everyone agrees on. In some cases, identifying the measures is the easy part. Building buy-in with partners for the shared goals in the dashboard can require the most work. In our experience, it is time well spent that leads to the kind of strong alignment necessary for a network to have impact.