Improving Your Social Impact Measurement Practices (Part 1): Three Tips

Adapted from our presentation at the Jewish Federation General Assembly 2014.

We think a lot about measurement, thanks to our mission and academic home. But we’re not alone: see Measuring Social Impact, Impact Measurement, and Measuring What Counts, to name just a few. Why is measurement such a hot topic? At their best, systems for monitoring and measuring nonprofit performance help donors understand what an organization is accomplishing, where its resources are going, and how it can improve.  At their worst, such systems become expensive compliance exercises, diverting resources from program delivery without returning any insight.

With that context in mind, the Center has three tips for donors looking to improve their efforts to measure and manage to social impact.  For each we also provide a sample question that a donor might use.

1. Start with the ‘why’

If you don’t know why you are measuring, don’t measure. There are many reasons to measure: to refine your plans, to understand whether your activities led to the results you expected, to improve or adapt your efforts, to know whether or not you succeeded, to improve the state of the field, etc. If you don’t know why you are measuring, then any measurement exercise risks wasting limited time and money.

Sample question to ask: What do I need to know to improve my efforts?

2. Right-size your approach to measurement

Effective measurement requires time and resources. Before you decide on a certain kind of measurement, understand what’s already being done, and consider whether you can build on what’s already available to get to even better answers. But if there’s little information, or it’s hard to collect the desired data, it may mean that additional funding is needed before you can improve measurement.

Sample question to ask: What outcomes does the nonprofit currently measure, and where are the gaps in what we need to know?

3. Distinguish organizational performance management vs. community-level impact assessment

Nonprofit leaders – like most managers – are often focused on what they can control; many funders are concerned with far-reaching or longer-term impacts, some of which may be beyond the influence of the specific groups they fund. These two concerns are linked, as we’ll discuss more in next week’s blog. For now, though, know that if you are not clear on where you are on the continuum from measuring inputs to outputs to outcomes to impact, you risk choosing indicators and measurement practices that don’t yield the information you need.

Sample question to ask : Is there existing evidence linking the nonprofit’s approach to the impact sought?

For more, stay tuned to next week’s blog or see our guide, see Beyond Compliance: Measuring to Learn, Improve, and Create Positive Change.