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Measuring What Matters


Working as a nonprofit/foundation consultant and university professor, I feel like I have seen it all. Foundations telling organizations what to measure, organizations measuring too many things, and even worse – organizations measuring nothing at all. Then again, I have seen organizations measuring the most impactful things, the best logic models written on a coffee shop napkin before becoming infographics of beauty, and some organizations make measurement so simple and impactful that they have youth program participants doing it with them.

 

Whenever an organization is faced with the task of indicating whether its programs actually make a difference, it can be daunting. How do you go about measuring whether a meal makes someone feel more secure or resilient? How do you demonstrate that a local mural makes a community more vibrant? How do you see the long-term effects of a preschool program on high school graduation rates? The truth is that you can verify all of these things, but the better question is whether or not you should.

I get it, in the nonprofit sector we want to make the world a better place for all people; however, one program can only do so much – which is why collective impact and service coalitions are so important (that's a blog for another day). It is important for a nonprofit organization to measure what truly matters and to isolate what their program alone can achieve. So here are some quick pieces of advice on how to measure what matters.

#1 – Determine what YOU are going to REALISTICALLY measure
One of my professors frequently reminds us that social scientists always need to be aware of, and attempt to avoid, “physics envy” – meaning that those working in social programs need to be aware that we are not working in a lab setting, often cannot ethically run randomized control trials, and that A + B does not always equal C. We work in a complex and - to use a science term - volatile context which means that everything does not happen in a linear sequence and the reasons behind clients seeking support is always different. Therefore, do not pick 20 items to measure as part of your program since you probably will not be realistically able to assess all of them.

#2 – Tell FUNDERS what YOU measure
When writing grant proposals, funders either require you to match one of its prescribed outcomes or ask you to share your own. In either case, it is important to come to a funder with an idea of what you measure, how you measure, and why that is the best possible measure. Foundations want to know how you are going to measure your project's success; therefore, it is much easier to have set measures so that you can successfully evaluate programs across the board.

#3 – Measure at least ONE thing in ALL programs
At the end of the day, if you do not currently assess anything within your programs, pick one item to measure and measure it very well. Also, don't reinvent the wheel on your measurements. If there is a proven measurement already out there – use it. If someone developed a scale, adopt it. Just measure something.

For example: Research shows that reading 30 minutes to a child can have a tremendous impact. If you are running a reading program, a simple survey asking how many minutes a day parents read to their child participating in the program can give you some great data.
 
Measurement does not have to be hard or tedious – and it is so important to measure what matters to truly understand the value we are providing to our communities. So, what really matters to your organization, and how are you going to measure it?

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Colton C. Strawser is the President of Colton Strawser Consulting and the co-founder of the Nonprofit Leadership Toolbox – a monthly subscription service for nonprofit professionals. He can be found online at www.coltonstrawser.com or on Twitter at @Colton_Strawser.

 

Comments

 
By: Teri Pinney
On: 02/26/2019 10:09:40
Great article!
 
By: Tamara
On: 02/26/2019 12:49:57
I have found that, if we clearly show why we measure the outcomes/impact we measure, funders are usually understanding.
 
By: Chelsey Hall
On: 02/26/2019 15:26:01
Do you have any good methods for measuring community engagement?
 
By: Laura M Ross
On: 02/26/2019 17:20:57
A relevant and timely article! As a grant writer who just started working for a large nonprofit that's been in existence for almost 30 years, I was surprised by the lack of data for some of our programs. I'm trying to effect organizational change to create better, reportable data. So, it's nice to have an article that I can share with staff about this topic.
 
By: Ellen
On: 02/27/2019 12:17:15
This was very helpful! Measurement does not have to be hard or tedious - just real!
 
By: Colton C. Strawser
On: 02/28/2019 14:43:23
Hi All, Thank you for the great comments! Laura - measuring community engagement is different and depends on what the unit you are trying to measure is. I actually research community engagement and there are some different ways you can measure it. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail at colton@coltonstrawser.com and I can share some additional thoughts.

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