I recently wrote about the challenge nonprofits face around the ever growing demand for metrics. In Are Nonprofits Hitting Goals or Creating Results I highlighted the fact that today’s organizations are forced to be hyper-focused on gathering data points and meeting metrics. Beyond that, I’ve been in situations where I’ve genuinely questioned whether there is real learning going on. Is all that gathering of data the means to an end or is it really being used to increase the impact of an organization with a social mission?
When something like the above is on your mind, you become acutely aware of it. That’s what happened to me as I was working with a new client that has programs that provide a series of interventions in underserved school systems. One of their top funders, a foundation, had stipulated that not only did they want to see their donation partially matched by the board, they required reporting on the number of students participating in their programs, whether these students had attended a set number of workshops and produced a clear deliverable - a demonstration project. The end goal was that the nonprofit would be in a position to report back that both the match was raised and the agreed upon metrics had been gathered and reached.
The situation above isn’t inherently good or bad. In fact, this relationship dynamic between nonprofits and those that fund them - individuals or institutions - plays out every day. Yet, it speaks volumes. Or should I say the lack of reporting on the actual impact and results speaks volumes. I was left wondering why the foundation didn’t want to know more about the impact on the young people going through the nonprofit’s programs. Did they have a more positive attitude towards learning? Had their perspectives shifted on how they saw themselves and others? Ultimately, had their lives been changed in some way?
The challenge we face in today’s world whether we’re talking about nonprofit work, business or just about anything else is that we’re obsessed with measurement. Even worse, too often our criteria for measurement is woefully narrow or simply inadequate to gauge the success or impact of the work. We look at numbers but exclude the value of learning. We study metrics but discount the impact of our actions. Since I consider myself a realist, I realize and to a certain extent even appreciate that metrics and measurement aren’t going away. At the same time, here are a few tips for operating in our increasingly measurement happy environment.
What is your organization measuring or gathering data for that could use some alternatives to standard and narrow measures? This is a conversation worth having not just internally but with your partners - and yes, even your funders. Looking for more ideas on making your nonprofit more impactful? Let’s have a conversation. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-733-8569.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the difference between Goals and Results especially as it pertains to our work in the nonprofit sector. This comes on the heels of participating in a program called Creating the Impossible (CTI) hosted by International Coach Michael Neill. The core of the program was the challenge of launching a project that had less than a 20% chance of achievement. In other words, the project wasn’t supposed to simply be a Big Goal you could conquer through pure tenacity and discipline. Rather, the idea was to create a Result - something you can actually share with the world in an impactful way. By this definition a Result could be anything from a piece of art or music to a new program by a nonprofit that alleviates poverty, homelessness or a disease.
Having served in the nonprofit industry over the past eighteen years, I’ve seen an important shift in philanthropy. Individual and institutional support has moved from giving simply “to be a good citizen or community member” to donating with the worthy intent of having an impact on a cause or issue. At the same time, both individual and institutional donors have an increasing drive for the nonprofits they support to provide “proof” that their intervention is working.
The above isn’t inherently bad or good. I understand our very human inclination towards receiving a fair value for dollars spent - whether they’re purchases of goods or services - or donations. I do believe however that in an increasingly competitive funding environment, this shift can push nonprofits towards an overemphasis on the proof while losing sight of the need for Results. Remember, Measurement does not equate to Results. To measure is simply to quantify. Results create something new in the world. That something can be a different state of being, a new direction or brand new set of possibilities. Or something that we might not even be able to identify yet. Quite simply, it’s all about Change.
But in this age of measurement, metrics and defined impact, here are some questions nonprofit leaders need to be asking themselves:
Are We Choosing Metrics Over Results? The answer is rarely as simple as a yes or no. It’s more a question to delve into whether you’re showing the symptoms. Are you and your team spending more time collecting data as opposed to looking at what the data means? Do meetings with donors put you on edge and have your team scrambling to fill in key metrics as opposed to being challenged to figure out whether the metrics have borne out the hypothesis for your intervention. These are some leading telltale signs.
Are We Learning From the Metrics? Similar in some ways to what’s discussed above is the question of whether your charity is simply collecting or learning. One step further would be using these metrics to see what’s NOT working, owning and course-correcting for it. One of the other big challenges the nonprofit industry faces is an environment that rarely supports experimentation, risk-taking, and even (OMG) occasionally failing. Metrics should be used well-beyond fulfilling reporting requirements. Used strategically, they’re a resource for identifying how we can do what we do - but better.
What’s the Right Balance for Our Organization? Please know I’m not advocating that we step back to the days of simply “doing good stuff” and nothing but touching stories to share the impact of our work. What I am taking a stand for is awareness and finding that important balance between communicating the impact of donor dollars while ensuring that your charity always has its eye on the prize - Real Results that Change Lives.
If I can help you and your organization increase your impact, please let me know. You can reach me at email@example.com
Robert Grabel is the President of Nonprofit Now! You can find his posts here and at www.robertgrabel.com
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