Tips and Tools for Effectively Measuring Your Work

By Hannah Kanstroom and Miki Akimoto

Hannah Kanstroom, left, and Miki Akimoto
As nonprofit organizations face growing scrutiny, rising calls for transparency and accountability, and increased competition for philanthropic dollars, they need to effectively measure and message their impact.

In addition to determining if their work is actually making a difference, nonprofits that measure their work consistently and apply the findings are better equipped to avoid mission drift and misallocation of key resources. Measuring impact is both a challenge and an opportunity, as this work is not easy and often can seem overwhelming.

Where to begin? Start with the big picture and work backward.

Your vision, mission, and values—not funder priorities—should be the key drivers for your evaluation. Utilize a strategic plan with specific goals to create the desired image of future success and align it with the organization’s distinct value proposition. This type of evaluation requires buy-in from all stakeholders and, can be expensive at times if you consider factors such as staff time, cost of outside expertise, or data management systems, so it is crucial to be thoughtful and strategic in what, when, and how your organization takes on measurement.

When thinking about how to measure change, work collectively to identify what exactly it is you are trying to change and what the short-, medium-, and long-term indicators of success are that will show that you met your stated goals.

Developing a simple framework can help alleviate some of the difficulty of getting started; impact measurement does not have to be complex to be effective. One way to start is to pick one of your key initiatives or programs and work through these steps:
  1. Identify qualitative and quantitative data metrics for tracking intended outcomes. This often is the place where nonprofits may feel stuck, as some programs may seem harder to measure than others. When identifying the metrics you might use, consider the following questions:
    a) What do we already know about measuring this program?
    b) What resources do we already have?
    c) What resources do we need?
    d) What questions do we have to answer before we can move forward?
  2. Assess results to develop conclusions about the effectiveness of organizational services and programming. Be prepared for surprises, and be willing to accept that even signature programs may not be having the impacts you intend.

  3. Synthesize and analyze results to share key takeaways with organizational stakeholders, specifically funders, board members, and all staff. In order to truly implement continual improvement of programs, you must effectively communicate results (good and bad) and engage all key stake holders in the process of continually assessing and improving.

  4. Adjust service delivery to align with intended goals and organizational mission, incorporating findings from your evaluation and emerging research. In addition to measuring your own program’s effectiveness, it’s important to keep abreast of emerging research and evidence in your field.
This is challenging work. Despite funders’ desire for demonstrated impact, they often are reluctant to fund evaluation. This requires organizations to be nimble and creative in their strategy and to determine a relevant and feasible number of qualitative and quantitative outcomes they can track.

Another issue about which nonprofits need to be mindful is that funders and nonprofits often define metrics and success differently in specific program areas, leading to confusion around what a target goal should be for an organization. Increasingly, benchmarking studies are being conducted within different sectors, but it remains a concern for nonprofits engaging in evaluation.

Although measuring impact presents several obstacles, it never has been more important for nonprofit organizations. The ability to effectively articulate the unique mission, vision, and goals for the organization is critical to obtaining dollars from both funders and individual donors who value making true investments in nonprofits and expect to see clear results.

Hannah Kanstroom is a vice president and practice expert, and Miki Akimoto is a managing director and national practice executive, both at Bank of America Private Bank. Email them at hannah.b.kanstroom@ustrust.com and miki.akimoto@ustrust.com.
April 2019