January 25, 2012

First steps in measuring impact for your nonprofit

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Image by Eraxion on BigStockPhoto.com

Guest post by Julie Macalik
Greenlights for Nonprofit Success

The first step in starting to measure your impact is to identify the major outcomes that you want to examine. To be successful you’ll need full management support and a dedicated key project lead for your team. This person will take the helm on laying out tasks in a sequence, informing other staff of their roles and assignments, and providing assistance to people as they complete their parts of the evaluation.

The standard nonprofit data points come from fundraising, communications, programs, and finance, so consider these sources when gathering your team. For example, a representative from the fundraising department can make sure you consider when your funders’ reporting cycles are so that you are producing outcome measurement results at a time that aligns with their requests for information about your programs. Also, those most directly affected should provide meaningful participation, so don’t forget about your front-line staff directly involved in providing services.

Next, you’ll want to select the outcomes that you want to examine and prioritize them. For each outcome, specify what observable measures, or indicators, will suggest that you’re achieving that key outcome for impact. After you’ve made your selection, you can then identify what information is needed to show whether you’ve succeeded.

There are many types of technology and other management tools available to assist in this process, and now is the time to take stock of your technology and the tools you’re going to use to track your data. Decide how information can be efficiently and realistically gathered using the different methods that are best for your organization, including:

  • Surveys: Consider what features you’ll need. If you’re just looking to get your feet wet with a quick survey, one of the many free or low cost online survey tools will do the trick. In fact, a more sophisticated survey package could be considerably more difficult to use. On the other hand, if you’re looking for survey software to support rigorous research, the more advanced packages are more likely to have the features you need.
  • Interviews and focus groups: The desired outcome of this type of method is to solicit data without any influence or bias. This also allows you to develop a relationship with clients or other key stakeholders and get a full range of information. One benefit of focus groups is the ability for participants to feed off each other’s energy and bounce ideas off one another. Consider using an outside facilitator to help develop questions and protocol and to help identify themes from your data.
  • Documentation review: Looking at internal records including applications, forms, procedures, and finances allows you to get an impression of how programs operate without interruption and identify new methods of collection.
  • Databases: Nonprofits can use these tools to track data in real time and report on results. Internally they can assist in managing performance at the departmental or affiliate-level using dashboards and benchmark progress over time.

After the data is collected, organize the information into similar categories — i.e., concerns, suggestions, strengths, etc. From here you can identify patterns and themes to help you categorize and analyze data according to the indicators for each outcome.

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