Prepare for outcomes measurement and stay focused on the big pictureBefore you start studying your organizational metrics — how many children were tutored, how many meals served — it's important to clarify your mission. Competition for nonprofit funding is intense and donors and grant committees want to know their contributions are being spent responsibly. A strong mission and impact statement at the forefront of any measurement campaign will help streamline communication and keep everyone focused on the bigger picture.
In an ideal world, every project or program you implement would align directly with your organization's broader mission. In practice, however, even the most successful nonprofits have initiatives that miss the mark from time to time — even with the board of directors or trustees helping to make sure the various parts of your organization are working together. It can be just as valuable to study these failures as to study programs that have exceeded expectations. The metrics you collect should always be in service of answering the central question: what are you trying to accomplish?
Uncover your real purpose
If you're new to this process, start small — don't try to measure every program at once. Work with your board to pick one service or point of impact as a starting place. Then, expand outward as you become more familiar with the process. You might choose to measure a program that isn't working, or choose to follow the trajectory of a new initiative you're excited to launch.
Most importantly, know what you'll do with the information when you have it. What action will you take (or not take) once you've got your outcome measurement results? Will you allocate funds differently? Provide additional support for struggling programs? Publish a blog post or tell your supporters what you learned in your next newsletter?
Before you start collecting numbers, take time to articulate why you're doing this. For example, you might use outcomes measurement to:
- Verify that your program is working as expected
- Generate support for a new program
- Provide financial accountability for donors and the board
- Develop organization-wide quality improvement processes
- Describe how to measure a service's impact
- Report on a program's effectiveness or supporting a redesign
- Allocate resources equitably
Assemble your team
How many people you need on your team and the role your team will take depends on the size and scale of your organization. For instance, a community library probably doesn't need a 7-person council studying efficacy, though the same council might be exactly what the historical society down the street needs. As you assemble your team, aim for a well-rounded skill set in scale with the size of your organization.
Here are a few key jobs that will help you get started:
No matter who leads the initiative, someone needs to be responsible for coordinating the logistics of the measurement process. A current staff member might be able to take on this role, or you might need to hire outside help. Some organizations have no trouble getting volunteers to help shoulder any additional workload while others struggle to keep the lights on. Your project coordinator should be realistic about what you can accomplish in any single measurement campaign. His or her job is to help keep the process, no matter how complicated, on track.
All organizations have institutional memory. To tap into this, encourage active participation of staff and volunteers in your outcomes measurement team whenever possible. They have invaluable insight into how things are working on a day-to-day basis. Those unfamiliar with outcome measurement can sometimes feel intimidated by the work, so it's important to have someone on the team with the skills to connect everything you're doing back to your core purpose and impacts.
Depending on the technicality of measurement, you might need to budget for anything from new software to a full-time IT consultant. Evaluate your needs as generously as possible. Technology slip-ups are common and can easily set an unprepared team weeks behind. Think about what you're going to need — data input, financial breakdowns, a simple Word document — and make sure someone on your team has the skills to accomplish it.
Invest in the future
Like any investment, outcomes measurement requires capital — meaning any time, energy or money needed to ensure success. Depending on your needs, capital may take the form of additional staff or consultants, investments in technology, or updated supplies or equipment. Rather than a one-off cost, think of outcomes measurement as an investment in the future.
Strengthening Nonprofits: Developing a plan for outcome measurement
Free Management Library: Basic guide to outcomes-based evaluation for nonprofit organizations with very limited resources by Carter McNamara
Strengthening Nonprofits: Measuring outcomes
Nonprofit Quarterly: Using outcomes to measure nonprofit success by Richard Larkin (2013)
Intacct: Best practice trends for nonprofit organizations — outcome measures by Joan Benson