It’s time to measure

These days there are buzz words all over the nonprofit sector about measuring outcomes, logic models, the theory of change, impact models, performance measurement and evaluation.  But under all this jargon is a principle that is being embraced by nonprofits, foundations and donors across the country: a need to measure the success (or lack of success) of programs at nonprofit organizations.

It used to be that money was flowing, and people donated to nonprofits that they trusted were “doing good work.”  There was no discussion about results or impact of programs.  Donors just trusted that the nonprofit would use their donations to do good work.  Think about some of your favorite nonprofits…. there might be some you  even send a check to every year, just because you think they are doing good work – even though you never ask about their program results.

Then, the money got tight.  There were various reasons for this.  Yes, the economy took a “downward turn” so there was less money to go around, so donors wanted to ensure their investment was going to be used effectively.  But also, many nonprofits weren’t using donor dollars appropriately… there have been a fair share of scandals and misappropriation of funds by various nonprofit organizations.

As a result, many donors and foundations started asking for proof that their donations were going to programs that fulfill organizations’ missions.  They wanted to know that their investment was being used to truly make an impact.

At the recent Vital Signs Illinois Nonprofit Conference, I served as a panelist for the program Learn, Grow, Improve:  We’re Talking Evaluation.  We discussed various ways nonprofits can implement program evaluations and the funders’ expectations for program evaluations. Here are some of the take-aways from the session…

Start Now:
The greatest take away from this session was that nonprofits should start measuring the success of their programs, NOW.  Start finding ways to track how you are changing the lives of those touched by your program.  Nonprofits can use simple surveys to measure new knowledge clients  gain from participating in agency programs, or satisfaction surveys from families that adopt from an animal shelter, or measure the number of families that intend to start recycling after attending an Earth Day fair.  Just start somewhere, and start now.

Do it for you: 
Nonprofits should conduct evaluations of their programs because by evaluating their programs, they can duplicate effective programs and tweak other programs to make them more effective.  Evaluation helps a nonprofit improve their programs to better serve their clients.  It is not a coincidence that according to the Bridgespan Group, one thing that the 100 fastest growing youth organizations have in common is that nearly all of them can articulate the results of their programs.  Nonprofits are most effective when they are evaluating to improve their programs, not because a funder requested it.

Donors ask questions: 
When you contribute to a charity, be sure that the nonprofit can answer how their programs are making an impact (or what the results are for their programs).  As a donor, a nonprofit organization should be able to pass the “so what?” test.  That is, by carrying out the programs at the nonprofit, so what was the impact?  So what lives were changed? So what will now be different in the world?  So what did program participants learn? When making a donation, consider if the nonprofit is measuring the impact of their programs and can tell you what impact they’ve had.

To learn more about program evaluation for nonprofit organizations, check out the Donors Forum annotated bibliography on evaluation resources.

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About Dr. Sarah Wolin Mackey

Putting theory into practice at nonprofit organizations.
This entry was posted in Evaluation, Nonprofit Management and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It’s time to measure

  1. Jay says:

    I agree with this 100%. At the nonprofit I’m interning with now, my current task is to find out how to better measure just about everything each program does. They do a pretty good job already, but there is always room for improvement. I would add to your points that it starts with the commitment from executive leadership and the board for a nonprofit to really begin successfully measuring impact.

    • Thanks for your comments, Jay! I agree that commitment from leadership at the organization does contribute to the successful adoption of evaluation measures. When the leaders are on board, it will support allocating resources of time and money towards evaluation, which will in turn strengthen the organization.

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