Q & A with Professor Julie Boatright Wilson, Harvard Kennedy School

Performance Measurement for Effective Management of Nonprofit Organizations (PMNO) is an executive education program jointly offered by the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative and the Harvard Kennedy School. The program is led by two faculty co-chairs: HBS and HKS professor and SEI faculty co-chair Dutch Leonard and HKS professor Julie Boatright Wilson. We asked Professor Wilson to share some thoughts with Impact Insights on performance measurement in the social sector. 

How long have you served as the faculty co-chair for PMNO? How did you become interested in performance measurement for nonprofits?

I joined the PMNO teaching team in 2011 and became co-chair for the 2012 session. I have been co-chairing the program since then.

My work and teaching focus on domestic social policy in the United States, particularly policies for at risk families and youth – child welfare, juvenile justice and child and adolescent mental health. Most states contract with nonprofits to provide services and supports to these vulnerable populations because nonprofit providers are on the ground, they often have a deep understanding of the communities, and they care about these populations and issues. But nonprofits vary in their capacities and access to resources and it is not always clear that their best efforts are effective. Sometimes that is because they are doing the right thing but not enough of it – the dosage is too small. Sometimes they are doing good work but the challenges are so complex that their good work in the absence of a network of other resources and supports won’t lead to much change. And sometimes, what they are doing is completely counterproductive. This raises some very important questions: How do we know what “good practice” entails? How do we know if our organization is implementing our program with fidelity? Is what we are doing making a difference? If not, why not? As important as these questions are, often the type of person who has the interpersonal and professional skills to develop relationships of trust with these populations has little training or facility with thinking about and gathering information to assess these important questions.

How does performance measurement tie in to an organization’s ability to drive social impact? 

In my field, we have an impact when we can deliver the right intervention at the right time in the right dosage. To accomplish this you need a robust, evidence-based Theory of Change and all the resources necessary to implement your intervention. Performance measurement provides information on the extent to which you are implementing the program with fidelity. Do you have staff with the right training and skills? Do those you are providing services to keep coming back? Does their situation improve along the dimensions you are addressing? In the social services area, the challenge of knowing what to measure is only step one. Figuring out where to gather reliable data to answer the important questions is also a challenge. And creating a culture that uses those data to change practice may be even more challenging. But good nonprofit managers do this well.

The question of social impact, however, may be broader. Performance measurement provides tools to better manage your own organization and improve its effectiveness. But there are many situations where your organization only provides part of what is needed to make a difference. In this case, social impact is the result of several organizations each doing its part in a collective effort.

What do participants gain from the PMNO program? 

One of the most beautiful aspects of the PMNO program is the range in background, experience and issue focus the participants bring, coming from small to very large organizations from all over the world and from all domains in which nonprofits are active. By grounding class sessions in specific analytic frameworks and discussing them in the context of specific cases, we are able to draw on this diversity to probe more deeply than we otherwise might. Not only the participants, but also often the faculty, leave each discussion with new insights. 

Second, participants come away with a new network of fellow professionals struggling with the same issues – normally phrased as doing more and doing it more effectively with fewer resources. They can then draw on this network when they return to their worksites.

Third, with these new ideas and a new network of support whose members have been exposed to the same ideas, participants hopefully will feel emboldened to try new things, measure their effectiveness, and feed that information back into their organization to improve performance.

What do you see on the horizon for performance measurement in the social sector? 

First, nonprofit management is a dynamic field. Particularly in the United States, efforts to downsize governments and create more flexible responses to challenges have led to a greater reliance on nonprofits. So the scope of challenges nonprofits are facing will continue to increase. Second, foundations and governments are increasingly demanding evidence that the resources they are providing nonprofits are being used effectively. And third, our understanding of the challenges we are facing is becoming more sophisticated. 

The emerging importance of predictive analytics will give us greater insight into the characteristics of the complex challenges we face. Budgetary constraints will pressure us to develop more efficient ways to deliver services. And the challenges of complex problems should lead us to invest more in collective efforts – which raises questions of how we measure effectiveness when a lot of organizations are involved. These challenges are exciting. The nonprofit sector is vibrant and has the flexibility to be a leader – but only if it carefully measures its performance.


Designed for CEOs, executive directors, board members, and other senior executives in the nonprofit sector who are committed to implementing effective performance measurement and management systems, the PMNO program will be held on May 30 – June 2, 2017. To learn more about PMNO and our other executive education programs, visit our website.