Re-assesing assessment as a tool to improve performance

To those of us who labor on the floors of mission driven organizations the word “assessment” tends to foster feelings of fear and avoidance. Fear because we’re pretty sure we’re not, actually, measuring the true impact of our work, and avoidance because it’s frustrating to realize that this is true. But what’s a change-agent to do?

David Grant feels our pain. He also recognizes our true intentions and is committed to helping us realize them. He was as a teacher for 20 years, started and co-directed a school, then spent 12 years as president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. By now he knows what a change agent should do. And he’s pretty sure that we all need to reassess our understanding and use of assessment itself.

He starts by reminding us that our introduction to assessment was typically in school where is exists primarily to judge us. It’s something that comes at the end of a process. It’s purpose isn’t learning but sorting the winners from the losers when all is already done. No wonder we feel fear and avoidance whenever it’s mentioned.

The primary purpose of assessment is to improve performance

Grant has a bigger view. “Let’s propose a different assumption”, he says in a voice informed by both reason and experience:  “The primary purpose of assessment is to improve performance.” Whoa. New game. Better yet, he reminds us that we are in charge. With this new perspective “comes the idea that we can take assessment into our own hands, not just as individuals, but as groups committed to common goals.”

You see where this goes. In David Grant’s new world, assessment becomes not just a punch list of to-dos to check off, but a core learning tool to help the whole organization to 1) get clear on the true effect it wants to have, and 2) get a sense of how well it does so. In other industries similar efforts might be called “User Experience”, or “Customer Satisfaction”.

Measure what you value

OK, OK. Assessment should be used as a formative, not just a summative tool. But that’s hard. How do we actually measure outcome and impact in a meaningful way? Grant’s refreshing answer is that we do it by coming together and agreeing on what we do really value. It’s not just how many people we served last year, for example, but how were they served? How did their lives change, as measured by what we value?

This is where Grant’s experience in the classroom comes to the fore. While his assertions – that the designation non-profit is actually limiting and damaging (“We should call these organizations by what they are instead of by what they are not. We should call them social profit organizations…”) and that we should use assessment as a tool for continuous improvement – are radically important, it’s his definition of how to do it that delivers the larger value. Say hello to “rubrics”.

A tool that provides a structure for asking what matters and for describing what success will look like

“Rubrics are ubiquitous in the world of education. Essays that are graded by multiple readers use rubrics to assure inter-rater reliability. Teachers use rubrics to grade student work. More important for our purposes, teachers use rubrics to help students understand what good work looks like, before they do it.”

Google or wiki “rubrics,” I’m not going to explain them here. My point is that Grant makes a very compelling case that while rubrics are not widely used in the social sector, they should be. “To me, the rubric is a natural tool for a mission driven organization. It provides a structure and a format for asking what matters to us, and for describing what success will look like. It can be a vehicle for giving and receiving feedback because it gives a context for that feedback.”

The subtitle for this book is” The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations.” By re-purposing assessment and giving us a simple but effective tool to do so, it truly is essential. And any change agent can do it.

From the book:

I believe that how practitioners in the social sector think about measurement and assessment, and how they act upon assessment and evaluation, are the keys to increasing not only their effectiveness and impact, but also their satisfaction and pleasure in their jobs. 


…the problem we can actually tackle is that organizations in the social sector, along with their funders, have not embraced the the theory and practice of formative assessment – assessment practices whose primary purpose is to improve outcomes rather than judge them…


“When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” – Paul Black


The public and the corporate sectors are full of good people who care about others. Yet in the end, social aspirations notwithstanding, those in business, particularly big business accountable to shareholders, must focus on financial profit, and those in politics must focus on power, or on staying elected, or on silly functioning in a system compromised by conflict and bureaucracy. It is those organizations whose missions are about social profit that have a chance – and the responsibility –  to bring other purposes and values to the forefront.


Suffice it to say that if you decide what matters to you and take the time to to describe what performance looks like in relation to what you value, you can start to measure how close you come to your vision of success.


With a clear, specific, shared vision to plan backward from, an organization can engage with another concept that is critical to formative assessment – feedback. The more specific the shared vision of success is, the more likely it is you can give and receive feedback along the way toward reaching that vision.


…the first step in formative assessment has nothing to do with assessment. It is about understanding the the need to designate time for the work…I will refer to it as mission time…
…I fervently believe that mission time calms you down and saves you other time on the long run. Mission time is when we can achieve thoughtful clarity about who we are, what we are going to do and not going to do, what we do best, and how we will go about it.


The beauty of the locally designed assessment rubric is that it is entirely yours. Its use is internal. It is self-designed and redesigned as needed, without worrying about strict criteria of validity or reliability, because its job is not to meet standards of scientific measurement – it’s job is to describe success. It can be, and most often is, qualitative rather than quantitative, because it is about what matters most to the organization.

The Social Profit Handbook
The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes,
and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations
David Grant
Chelsea Green
2015, 174 pages

Available from Amazon.









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