Dear Mr. Naturalist . . .

Child drawingOne of the perks of working at most nature centers and similar places is that you get, at least occasionally, packets of hand-illustrated thank you notes from school children who have visited. One of the ones I remember best was addressed to an educator on my staff, displaying a portrait of him in action accompanied by words of high praise: “You deserve a PERMOTION!” (I probably remember this one because it stayed none-too-subtly on his bulletin board for months. . . .)

Notes from kids are fun, and quotes from them make great blurbs on fundraising appeals, but I always cringe a bit when center administrators cite them as evidence their programs are having an impact. There is a reason they do, of course: a commercial business can demonstrate its success in dollars of profit, but nonprofits and governments have to use a different currency. The trick is to come up with one that is meaningful.

We all seek to maximize “return on investment,” or ROI. All of us, for-profit and not-for-profit alike, can measure investment in dollars. (Yes, even the value of volunteer time can be expressed in dollars.) But most of us in the nature center business measure return in some other way. We want to change the conservation-related behaviors of the people we serve, or increase their involvement in outdoor recreation, or improve their scores on statewide academic achievement tests. For nature centers, there is no one “right” measure. The measure is whatever the leaders of the organization agree it is.

Selecting that measure is the core of strategic planning. It’s the most important thing for your organization’s leaders—whether they are Board members, elected officials, or administrators—to get right. It starts with your mission statement, which should be a description of the ROI you seek. But it goes further. As an organization, you should make a commitment to specific, measurable outcomes. They should be metrics that you can sit down and evaluate quarterly, and at the end of the year.

Easier said than done, of course. Stuff like “change in behaviors” and “increased involvement” are hard to measure, certainly a lot harder to measure than net profit. But in my next post, I’ll suggest some ways to do it.