Is measurement only for elephant-size nonprofits and foundations such as the Red Cross, Gates Foundation, or United Way? If you are part of a small- or medium-size organization (1-20 staff), you may feel overwhelmed by the measurement expectations set by larger entities and the field as a whole. But you shouldn’t abandon the hope of assessing your impact at the level most appropriate for you.
Below is a four-fold plan to take control of your own measurement, without reallocating your budget or hiring new staff.
1. Look internally for small- to medium-size data.
You are not an enormous organization; you do not need enormous data. One of the biggest challenges smaller groups face is acquiring data. You may or may not have a database solution. You may have historical data, or you may be collecting data for the first time. Unlike larger entities, you likely lack the capacity to build custom data systems that track specific metrics.
So how do you track success with fewer resources? Start small and work your way up the data ladder over time. “Almost all organizations have some data at their fingertips: attendance records, ticket sales, email subscribers, web clicks, and any other metric that you can place a number on, even in Kenya,” says Andrew Foote, co-founder of Sanivation, a five-person nonprofit that brings novel sanitation solutions to the developing world. “While we're just a small and pesky nonprofit we try to integrate feedback loops from surveys into everything we do. We don’t get nit-picky on scores but rather use results to know which of our beneficiaries need more training. Tracking metrics also helps us celebrate (and remember!) if our hard work has been successful.”
Use surveys. At Measuring Success, we have seen surveys transform organizations’ understanding of their performance. Any size organization can write 5-10 questions using basic survey principles (for example, systemic scales such as the Likert Scale work well for assessing attitudes) and disseminate them to stakeholders (via inexpensive tools such as SurveyMonkey).
2. Tap others’ big data.
In this information age, big data is available at an unprecedented scale and oftentimes for free. As a smaller organization, it is critical that you know what information you are looking for before diving into the deep end, because it’s easy to drown.
Once you have ascertained the kind of data you need, research. Some of the most helpful data for the mission-driven sector is stored in government datasets. Data.gov, launched in 2009, offers more than 250,000 free data sets—mostly from federal agencies—on topics such as high school graduation rates and changes in global climate. You can find international data—especially helpful for development organizations—on The World Bank’s website. Guidestar and The Foundation Center are great resources, as is NTEN’s list of data sharing sites related to nonprofits.
Also look to peers. The idea that organizations can make a bigger difference when they share data is part of the collective impact approach. The Cultural Data Project, for example, appends data from myriad organizations to provide a clearer glimpse of the role of art and culture in public policy. And in Dallas, Texas, 45 different organizations are sharing data to assess their collective and individual impacts on student graduation rates.
Even if it’s not feasible for you to undertake a data-sharing effort with dozens of organizations, other groups will likely let you into their established network of data-sharers if you are willing to ask.
3. Create a dashboard.
Once you’ve compiled some data, create a dashboard to regularly track the metrics that matter to you.
“A dashboard doesn’t have to be large,” says Bill Novelli, professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. “A dashboard might have three measures only, such as attendance, number of donations, and repeat visitors, but it is a valuable step forward.”
At the outset, it makes sense to set a goal that you want to achieve, such as 20 percent increase in email subscribers. Once a month, chart those numbers, and then at the end of the year, assess whether you accomplished your goal. Nothing provides insight like a picture—check out Beth Kanter’s “Nonprofits and Social Sector: Show Me Your Dashboards" Pinterest page for inspiration.
4. Take action.
As Novelli says, “Be sure to learn from what you measure; if you are not learning, measurement is just a moot exercise.” If you undertake a fundraising campaign, for example, and decide to track your campaign announcement through three different mediums—direct mail, social media, and your website—you may learn that the social media message raised the most money. By all means, go and do more fundraising via social media! Sometimes it’s really that simple.
Once you have survey results or any other dataset of interest, it’s not difficult to pique your colleagues’ curiosity about what the data says. This is a critical time in your journey toward assessing impact—achieving buy-in is crucial to later impact assessment capabilities. By convincing others at your organization that data is important and that tracking the same data for years to come will provide useful benchmarks, you will gain more support for measurement down the line.
Measurement is a process that starts small and grows over time, and it can take just one strategic insight to entirely change how an organization operates.