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A Few Things to Consider for Impact Measurement at Your Nonprofit

Impact measurement is an area being increasingly talked about in the nonprofit world. On one hand, this is an advance from always being heads-down on day-to-day operations and deliverables. On the other hand, many nonprofits are still trying to figure out how to effectively measure their impact and incorporate it into the way they do things. This remains one of the biggest opportunities for nonprofits today. It enables them to focus on the most important things, improve program efficiency, maximize fundraising results, and above all, operate based on the very reason for their existence.

Don't get me wrong — figuring out the "how" in impact measurement is a tremendous endeavor and a highly personal journey for any nonprofit, and there surely is no silver bullet. That noted, I'd like to share a few considerations that I think we should be mindful about when we approach impact measurement.

Focus on Your Beneficiaries

It's critical that we start from the very beneficiaries an organization wants to serve and develop an in-depth understanding of their needs, behaviors, pain points, and aspirations. This should be the foundation of a sound theory of change and should guide everything an organization does. Focusing on beneficiary needs may be easier said than done because there are many socioeconomic, psychographic, and interpersonal factors at play that make it incredibly complex. And demographics and issues can change a lot over time.

It pays to conduct periodic audits of the target beneficiaries and their needs to make sure the organization's goals and strategies are still on point. In doing so, it's important to start with an open mind, regardless of how much we thought we knew about them, to avoid any biasing preconceptions. Creating a learning mentality within the organization can be very useful because we may otherwise be tempted to have ongoing assumptions about the beneficiaries and look for cues that validate existing programs and initiatives.

Maintaining a current and deep understanding of the beneficiary needs will enable us to stay focused on the problem we set out to solve and be true to our reason for being. This will allow us to update our theory of change if needed, which will in turn inform our goals, strategies, and programs.

One Size Does Not Fit All

To effectively measure impact, it's important to be cognizant of the different types of "changes" that are relevant to the organization and have a plan of attack for each of them. Tangible, immediate changes such as number of families served by a local food bank are relatively easy to measure, and most nonprofits tend to have a good handle on them. Less tangible changes such as the impact of an after-school arts program on participants' development and academic performance are a lot trickier to measure.

Furthermore, changes in perception among relevant constituents can be even more nebulous. An example is attitudes towards recycling in a community in response to a local environmental advocacy program. Behavioral and perceptional shifts like these may take a long time to build and may require a rigorous long-term strategy to measure them correctly. Surveys combined with qualitative methods such as ethnography or in-person observations can help provide a more robust view of impact.

It's important to validate the causal relationship between efforts and impact and to calibrate in view of any other factors that might be at play. We may also consider leveraging additional data sources such as trend reports or in-person observations to mitigate any potential bias in survey self-reporting and boost confidence in the results.

Consider a Design Thinking Approach

Impact measurement should become part of an organization's identity and ingrained in its culture. The reason is simple — impact measurement is tied to why a nonprofit exists in the first place, and given the complexity and challenges to get it "right," it has to be part of what a nonprofit is about to really work.

How do we bake impact measurement into a nonprofit's culture? Design thinking can be a very useful tool. Design thinking starts with human needs and follows a methodical process of creative problem-solving. It helps facilitate a culture that embraces impact measurement because

  • It intrinsically starts from what the beneficiaries need — the problem the nonprofit sets out to solve.
  • It thrives on a learning culture by encouraging everyone in the organization to explore solutions to a problem and continuously iterate.
  • It instills an evolutionary mindset — through experimentation, measurement, and learning, it propels the organization forward.

Impact measurement is a journey — we become better organizations and find new meanings at the individual level as part of the journey. In a way, it's really about the journey, not the destination, right?


About the Author

Jewel Seperson is the founder of 33sparks, an insight and strategy consultancy helping nonprofits and purposeful organizations make smarter decisions and drive social change.

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