Of Metrics and Mission: Data Matters

“A revolution has begun: data are transforming the nonprofit world.” This quote from an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, written by Nicole Wallace, points to a major trend toward the use of data to guide program development, fundraising strategy and many other central elements of nonprofit business.

In truth, the push for better, more meaningful data has been going on for some time.  Funders have been asking for measurable objectives and evaluation plans for over twenty years. And for all of that time, small and mid-sized nonprofits have been wrestling with the challenge of how to quantify their impact on the community, what to measure, and how to afford a proper evaluation process.

In the past month, I’ve heard two new ideas that I think are worth sharing.

1. I met a young woman who has recently taken a new position at a small nonprofit in Montgomery County, PA with the title “program improvement administrator.” Intrigued, I asked her to describe her role.  She is focused 100% on quality improvement.  Her job is to help the organization better understand what they do well so they can enhance it, and, at the same time, understand where there are gaps and how they might fill them. I believe the position has the potential to add great value if only because it will force the organization to systematically consider the impact it is having, the impact it wants to have, and what it can do differently to enhance that impact.

2. At the 2014 AFP Franklin Forum, keynote speaker Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League, shared the outline of an evaluation process he has instituted for his organization and all of its regional affiliates. He provided valuable suggestions to address two of the most common challenges of developing metrics.

First, in response to the challenging question of what to measure, Morial advised that the organization focus on the very purpose of its existence, at the heart of the mission statement, and create ways to measure the organization’s impact on that.  The mission of the Urban League is to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power, and civil rights. He and his administrative team crafted four aspirational goals related to the mission, including having every child prepared for college, work, and life; every child graduating from high school; every person having a good job that pays a living wage and provides benefits, etc. But each of these goals begs the question of how to measure progress over time.  Compared to what?

The second insight Marc shared goes to that point.  He and his team developed a baseline study that they publish every year that creates an “equality index” comparing the relative condition of African Americans and Latinos to white Americans in the United States on parameters like employment, health, and civic engagement. They developed programs that they believe will directly impact on these parameters, thereby moving the needle on the equality index. And every year they report on how the relative condition of African Americans and Latinos has changed.

The missions of most small and mid-sized nonprofits are not as far reaching as the Urban League’s mission.  If our purpose is to impact our community, or a particular population in our community, we need to consider existing baseline data, or collect our own.  Then we need to be sure our programs are aligned with our desired impact. And, as we measure year after year, we need to consider how we can adjust our programs to enhance our impact and fill in the gaps where they exist.

It is time to take a “do it yourself” approach to the question of measuring impact and come up with a sustainable, meaningful process that will help your organization meet outside expectations and enhance mission impact.