You know your organization is doing great work, but measuring and communicating your activities can often feel overwhelming. Where do you start? Do you need to hire an expert? These techniques can make it easier to share your impact.
Educational nonprofits work to achieve long-term impact. Reshaping generations takes time, and change is achieved by a series of activities implemented over many years. But when applying for funds, grantmakers want clarity. They want to see what will change if they give you the resources and that your activities are causing the desired impact. That’s the dilemma. How can you measure and communicate your impact if the full results of your programs won’t be known until years after the program is implemented?
1. Accept that you can’t measure everything.
A nonprofit directly and indirectly impacts the people it serves and other community members—this is often an intended part of the organization’s strategy. Education nonprofits like yours also benefit groups of people beyond their constituents and communities. In fact, your activities bring so much benefit to society that it is tempting to try to measure everything to show funders the importance of your work. But measuring everything is time-consuming, and sharing all the information can be confusing to someone outside your organization.
You can focus on different types of data depending on what you want to measure—and understanding common impact measurement terms can help you decide. Monitoring data is used to measure the direct output of your activities, and it can be obtained while the program is happening. On the other hand, evaluation data refers to the long-term impact of your programs. It takes more time to collect evaluation data, so it’s measured less frequently. The first thing to do is choose which type of data you will be able to obtain and accept that, for the immediate future, you will only be able to communicate that data to the funder.
Example: You are working to educate several students on a specific skill set. After implementing your program, you will also document how you taught these skills and share them with a network of teachers. You can share with the funder how student performance on a test improved after your class was implemented. It’s good practice to explicitly say that this is only a part of the total impact because you have shared your model with several teachers who will replicate it with hundreds of students.
2. Focus on understanding your goals and intended impact.
Instead of thinking about which number you need to calculate and how to calculate it, consider outlining your mission and main objectives. You can start by answering these questions:
- What do you want to achieve with your activities?
- What problem do you want to solve?
- Who are you targeting?
- Who are you influencing directly?
Outlining your theory of change and building a logic model can help you visualize your activities, their immediate outputs, and intended outcomes. Knowing the outputs of your activities will make it easier to identify which information you already have to share and which information you can easily get. Furthermore, visualizing the results of your work will help you make more strategic decisions about your programs.
Example: If your organization wants to build creativity skills in children from public schools in the United States, measuring how your activities have improved kids’ creativity in the long term might be a lengthy research process—and it won’t give you immediate data. Nevertheless, if your activity is to train teachers at public schools in methodologies to teach creativity, then the actual output of your programs is the material you develop and the number of teachers attending training. You can choose to focus on the teachers and survey them about what they learned, how effective the methodology was, and how hard it was to implement in their classrooms. This will help you understand the outcomes of your program, which is much easier than launching an entire research project, and it gives you fast data.
3. Go beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to measurement.
Different organizations measure impact in different ways. When you Google impact metrics, you get a long list of key performance indicators (KPIs): impact per dollar, engagement rate, net promoter score, etc. It can be tempting to ask someone to calculate those values and apply them to what you do. However, that would be time-consuming and expensive, and it won’t capture the full value of your organization’s work.
Your ability to measure goals varies depending on the target group, time available to do the actual measurement, and the organization’s overall goals. Try to determine which information would be useful for you to know about your programs and constituents and what information is attainable. And remember, not all impact measures are quantitative!
Example: If you work for a school serving a rural area, you might already track the students’ progress through test scores. The test scores can also help you find trends in students’ behaviors. If you realize a group of students is constantly underperforming, you can investigate why this is happening. Disaggregating the data (breaking it down by more specific groups like gender, ethnicity, or even the types of classes they are taking) may also provide insight into who you’re serving and how well you’re doing it. This data will allow you to think strategically about your work and make decisions that will increase the effectiveness of your educational programs.
4. Create a realistic measurement plan and put data into context.
Time is money, and both are usually a constraint for nonprofits. That’s why it’s important to know beforehand what resources you have available to measure the impact of your activities. Will you hire a contractor, or will you collect the data? If you will be implementing the impact measurement plan but have limited time, it’s better to choose data that’s simpler and easier to obtain. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how simple the data is—the key is the context. Use the data to tell a story, and remember that the person reading your reports is not necessarily familiar with your work. Break it down and make your organization’s story stand out. Data is the most powerful when it is easy to understand.
Example: You manage a school for people with intellectual disabilities, and the only data point you have available is the number of students you serve. Use this number and explain to the funders the environment in which you operate. Is this the only school that provides the service in the area? What is the total number of unserved students? How are your programs helping them? What are you planning to do to serve more students? This one data point, in context, can illustrate meaningful impact.
You are the expert in your field and your community. You know what works and what doesn’t. So your impact measurement should be tailored to your work, easy to do, and useful for you when making strategic decisions.