Measuring Nonprofit Outcomes and Progress: What Data Should You Collect?

Two people examine a sheet of paper with data graphed on it

Editor’s note: While this article is aimed towards nonprofits in general, we find its advice applicable to giving families who want to reflect on their philanthropic outcomes with hard data bolstering their analysis. This article was originally published here by CharityChannel.

How do you decide what data to collect to track your outcomes and progress? It may seem obvious when you think about it—yet it’s a common failing that not only wastes time and resources, but denies organizations the strategic information they need to thrive.

Imagine that you are Data Director at Make Everything Wonderful Forever (MEWF). Your organization provides a training program for community leaders to learn how to make everything wonderful forever. Now, your board wants to see data to show how effective that training is.

At your team meeting, someone says, “Let’s survey people and ask them to rate how satisfied they are with the training.” Someone else says, “Yeah, and let’s ask them how likely they are to recommend it to a friend.” Sounds reasonable at the time, so you conduct a survey and collect that information.

When you get the results, you realize they aren’t useful. You already knew that people were satisfied, or else they wouldn’t keep coming back to continue their training. You don’t need to know how many would refer a friend, because that’s not how you engage people to take the training.

“There’s got to be a better way,” you think. Fortunately, there is.

I’ve used this general approach in research projects for clients, as well as to track my own progress in reaching my goals for my business:

1. Map Out Your Plan

First, create a diagram, or map, of what you are doing (or what you plan to do).

Bring together the people who will be involved in doing the work and collecting the data. You’ll also need materials to make your map. You can use paper and pen, sticky notes, or a mapping software such as Kumu.

First, decide your goals. Include your immediate goals and your long-term goals. Working together, start by placing your goals on your map. Use one circle for each goal, and arrows to show where more of one causes more of another. For example, your team might agree that your goal is to increase the knowledge and skills of community leaders who take the MEWF training, so they can make everything wonderful forever. That would look like this:Map Illustration: Start by placing your goals on your map.

Next, add circles for what you’ll do to achieve those goals. In this example, you’ll increase people’s knowledge and skills by providing them with your training.

Illustration: Next, add circles for what you'll do to achieve those goals.

Next, look at your map so far, and add circles for what else you’ll do to make those things happen. For example, your organization might work with professional associations to recruit great trainers to provide the MEWF training. That’s two more circles to add to your map.

Illustration: Next, add circles for what else you’ll do to make those things happen.

Then, looking at the circles for your goals, add circles for what other effects your activities may have. Perhaps people who take your training sometimes become trainers themselves. That would be another arrow to place on your map.

Illustration: Add circles for what other effects your activities may have.

Continue until you run out of new circles to add. Your map can include not only your organization’s goals and how you’ll achieve them but also what others are doing. For example, besides your training, attending conferences may be another way for people to learn how to make everything wonderful. You’ll want to make sure that your training is providing something new and not duplicating efforts.

Your organization might also use social media outreach and ads at bus stops to recruit people to take your training.

Your final map might look something like this.

Illustration: Your final map might look something like this.

Don’t worry if your map seems “too big.” You don’t have to use the whole map all at once. That takes us to the next step.

2. Specify Key Performance Indicators and Measures

The next step is to identify which of the circles on your map would make good “key performance indicators” (KPI) and how to measure them. KPI are the things that you’ll want to track to show your progress and outcomes.

At a minimum, KPIs will generally include your goals and stepping stones leading to them. Be careful only to measure things that are important to your success, not just what’s convenient to measure. Usually, you don’t need to measure everything on your map.

For each KPI, discuss how it will be measured and who will collect the data to measure it. A dashboard can be helpful for aligning your KPI with how you’ll measure them and the results.

A dashboard can be helpful for aligning your KPI with how you’ll measure them and the results.

Be sure that you have the staff time and resources to collect the data.

3. Monitor Your Progress

After deciding what KPI to measure, put your plan into action and collect that data to monitor your progress. At regular meetings ( e.g., monthly), remind your team to bring the data that they have collected for the KPIs that they are tracking. Ask them to share the results.

Reviewing data for your KPI shows which circles are confirmed and should stay on your map, what could be removed, and what could be changed. Use the new information you’re learning to improve your map.

You can also use your map to organize your data to tell a story. The map shows the causal pathways for how the data all fit together.

The most important thing to remember is, if it’s not important to your success, don’t measure it.