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.

FLEXIBILITY — Are you allowing for creativity and flexibility in your approach to measurement and metrics? The key question when looking at metrics, whether its for internal purposes or in response to a funder requirement, should be What can we learn – or even change – by getting this information? If there’s a clear answer and it’s putting you on a path, AWESOME!. If not, what can you change or shift to make the data more purposeful?

UNIQUENESS — Just as nonprofits have a wide range of missions and related work, so should their methodology for measuring their impact. While attendance, test scores and graduations are clear and understandable markers in education, indicators for reducing homelessness, alleviating hunger and recidivism (to name just a few) will be dramatically different. Ensure that you’re using the right measuring tools.

IMMEASURABILITY — Recognize that despite our measurement mindset, we need to accept that some things cannot and shouldn’t be quantified. It still brings a smile to my face when a company surveys me and asks “On a scale of 1 to 5, how happy were you with our service?”. Inevitably people provide answers but how much can an organization learn and/or what changes can be implemented if the score comes back averaging 3.65. Or 4.25. Or whatever. Objective areas like social and emotional learning, motivations and tenacity may need to be explored through one or one discussions, observations and stories.

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 robert.grabel@yournonprofitnow.com or 917-733-8569.

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