How Do You Measure Success?

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For every nonprofit professional who has drafted a logic model for a grant proposal, and struggled with finding adequate ways to define and measure success, there is good news. Today’s push for nonprofit partnerships and collaborations is beginning to produce one, unexpected result: a growing effort to define common metrics that are meaningful across entire service categories.

In Transactions and Transformations: A Framework for Metrics That Matter, a report funded by the Ford Foundation*, the authors draw an important distinction between “transactional metrics,” and “transformational metrics“. The first type is easier to measure, and too many nonprofits fall into the trap of just recording this type of data. A winning proposal, in fact an effective nonprofit, needs to be utilizing both types of metrics.

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It’s relatively easy to ascertain how many people attended an educational session, or how many calls the phone bank volunteers answered. Although there may be a transformational aspect to a transaction (a woman attending a session learns about the importance of breast self-examination), unless the organization can substantiate that there was a change in her behavior as a result of that knowledge, can it claim her attendance alone as a success? The answer is ‘No’.

Nonprofit/client transactions typically require follow-up in order to determine whether they were transformational – often more than once. After determining your organization’s short- and long-range goals, make sure that systems are in place to collect not only the data you need to measure success today, but to track your success over time. Imagine the type of information that will be valuable to you in 10 years, and start tracking it now! The advantage of having multiple data points is that it establishes benchmarks; even if the hoped-for result is outside of the grant period, there still should be time to conduct at least one follow-up and measure the result against a predetermined benchmark. The disadvantage, of course, is that gathering and analyzing this type of data can be labor-intensive and costly.

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Even though the Ford Foundation report deals with groups of nonprofits forming social movements, its emphasis on the importance of applying both transactional and transformational metrics is valid for individual nonprofits as well. Keep an eye out for organizational collaboratives in your service sector, and see if they are recommending standardized metrics. The trend for more uniform and meaningful metrics is promising, because it will benefit both nonprofits and funders. For the nonprofit, it will clarify specific processes, benchmarks, outcomes and impacts that need measuring. For the funding agency, it will aid in the decision-making process by making it possible to assess the relative merits of various grant applications against similar criteria.

* Manuel Pastor, Jennifer Ito, Rachel Rosner, October 2011

Richard Beeman