Freed from my day job, I have taken the last few years to write a book based on what  I learned during the Dodge years about how assessment works – or might work – in the social sector. The book was published this spring by Chelsea Green Publishing and its title, The Social Profit Handbook, emphasizes the purpose behind putting effort into creating a good assessment system; it’s not about the assessment itself – it’s about the social benefits such a system can help bring about.

Key themes of the book include:

Assessment should come before the work, not after it.

This may seem counter-intuitive if you think the purpose of assessment is to judge work that has already happened. But what if its primary purpose was to shape and improve work that hasn’t happened yet? That’s what formative assessment does. When I am explaining this concept in workshops, I ask people to think about where they got the idea that assessment happens at the end. Most exclaim, “School!” Indeed, we should not underestimate the influence of experiencing literally thousands of quizzes, tests, and exams coming at the end of chapters, units, books, and courses. We are very familiar with being “graded” for past work. But school also provided us with at least two examples of adults with a different approach to assessment – coaches and teachers of performing arts. Their efforts were focused on upcoming performances with clear criteria for success, and they gave timely feedback to help us succeed. We can take our lead from them if we consider ourselves performers in pursuit of impact in our communities. It remains for us to be clear about what success will look like so we can get and give the feedback we need along the way.

Assessment should be qualitative as well as quantitative.

Well-chosen metrics can be very helpful in tracking progress, but most nonprofit leaders I know say there is something missing if everything must be expressed in numbers. And I agree with Michael Fullan when he writes in his book Change Leader, “Statistics are a wonderful servant and an appalling master.” What we need is a tool that allows us to use words – as many as we want – to describe the levels of success we aspire to in relation to the criteria for success that matter most to us. Then we can plan backwards from these shared visions. For me, the best tool is the qualitativeassessment rubric, a simple matrix with criteria for success on one axis (picture them running down the left-hand column) and levels of success on the other (picture them running along the top row). We now have a format for describing together what we are aiming for, in the areas that matter most to us.

Read the full article on assessments by David Grant at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.