Using a Data Dashboard to Track what’s Most Important to Your Nonprofit

By Heather Iliff, Director, Maryland Nonprofits Consulting Group

IliffThe most important jobs of the board of directors and executive director of any nonprofit are to a) ensure the organization advances its mission, and b) ensure the organization has adequate resources to advance the mission.  

Most boards review financial measures regularly and are able to understand changes in the financial position because the financial report is presented in the same way at each meeting.  Program measures, on the other hand, are often more complex, and come in different shapes and sizes – sometimes in a PowerPoint, in an evaluation report, or even orally from staff members.   This can make it difficult for leaders to identify the most important issues that need attention.

A Data Dashboard is a tool to quickly communicate the most important measures that the board and staff leadership need to review on a regular basis.  The term “Dashboard” comes from the dashboard of a car.

As a driver, you need to know in real time the most important indicators to effectively operate the vehicle:  speed, fuel, engine light, and the like.  This is a sub-set of all the data that might be available to you about your car if you were to open the hood or have a mechanic do a full diagnostic.  

Similarly, in organizations, the driver (board and executive leadership) need to review the most important indicators regularly.  Getting all the detailed diagnostics can sometimes make it difficult for decision-makers to understand what issues need their immediate attention.  A data dashboard provides a quick, one-page summary of the most critical indicators that affect an organization’s performance.

The following steps can help you create a data dashboard for your organization:

  1. Set up an ad-hoc committee of the board and staff to review your strategic plan and the different kinds of data you collect.
  2. Select a set of key data points that tell you the most about how well you are achieving your mission and stewarding your resources.  
  3. For each data point, establish an annual or multi-year target for that indicator.  For example, right now we are serving 200 people, and our goal is to increase it to 240 by the end of the year and increase to 350 within 3 years.
  4. Create a simple format to present updated information on the indicators regularly to the board and staff.

Once you have created the data dashboard, you can use this as a standing agenda item at board meetings.  Be sure to celebrate success as well as discuss areas for improvement.  For areas that are doing well, discuss what core competencies enabled you to succeed in this area?  How can we build on this success?   If some areas are falling short of expectations, discuss questions such as:  Have we resourced this goal sufficiently?  Do we need to modify our program design?  Do our staff and volunteers have the necessary skills?  

Maryland Nonprofits has created a sample “Data Dashboard” for a fictitious organization that you can utilize as a template. You can also access a real-life example from a member organization, Health Howard, Inc., who has graciously agreed to share their performance dashboard with Maryland Nonprofits members. These documents can all be found on our Download Center section of our website.

For consulting assistance in developing a data dashboard or strategic plan, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , Director of Maryland Nonprofits Consulting Group at 301.537.9519.