Meeting a need no longer enough
By Jessica Love, associate executive director, Prosperity Indiana
Generally, nonprofits are established to make a difference for the people or places they serve. As a result, the impact and outcomes are inherent in the work.
But these days, meeting an individual or community need is generally not good enough for a nonprofit to thrive, or even survive, in a world “competing” for donations, sponsorships and grants. Nonprofits must prove they are doing the good they set out to accomplish – and that they’re about outcomes as much or more than they are about outputs.
The National Council of Nonprofits cites this same challenge in an article, titled Impact and Evaluation of Outcomes. The article highlights concepts from Leap of Reason (2011). Of note is that measuring outcomes is not just about attracting resources to your nonprofit, but about mission. A nonprofit will only know that it is indeed helping individuals, solving problems in communities, and protecting the environment, etc., if it is evaluating its performance and then communicating the impact. The article also provides helpful links to numerous resources to improve outcome measurement.
Unfortunately, tracking outcomes is often disjointed from one organization to another and from one funder to another. Additionally, outcomes are often just tracked to meet external requirements or cite specific accomplishments, and may not tell the larger story of the organization’s or program’s success.
According to Andrew Means, co-founder of the Impact Lab and founder of Data Analysts for Social Good, technology is one example. The nonprofit sector often doesn’t see technology as a set of tools created to make jobs better. Means suggested that nonprofits, acting as partners in creating a social sector powered by information, have a huge opportunity “to actually use data and data technology to inform the way that we program.”
He also suggested that nonprofits beginning to use data to measure impact should first start “where they are.” As their work advances, they should seek to invest wisely and align themselves with data experts so as to not waste time with bad data. It is critical, according to Means that nonprofits work together to take advantage of the data.
“No nonprofit has the market concentration of Amazon, or Netflix, or Google. We need to come together, and share our data, work more collaboratively with one another to really understand and identify ways of increasing our impact. If you want to do really great data work, you have to do it collaboratively with other organizations,” he said.
That’s where a new initiative of Prosperity Indiana – the Outcomes Platform – will support its members in a more meaningful way.
In a survey of the membership, 90 percent of respondents said they use data to support their programs and to document and demonstrate success. More than half of all respondents indicated Excel is the tracking tool of choice.
Prosperity Indiana values the importance of developing specific, measureable, aggressive yet achievable, realistic and time-bound goals, but realizes that without a dynamic system for collecting, measuring and tracking goals, strategies, actions and accomplishments, it’s difficult to determine whether those aspirations were achieved.
Because limitations are inherent across the field and clearly identified by Prosperity Indiana’s member survey, Prosperity Indiana wants to provide a way to overcome the challenges of time, staff and financial resources and training.
Providing/developing a cloud-based system for use across the membership to collectively measure impact by tracking of organizational outcomes and planning initiatives against community-level indicators, Prosperity Indiana’s new data collection system will give a clearer picture of impact through a tool that creates visual representations of the data with a web embed option.
Through an evolving relationship with an award-winning online database developer, Insightformation, Prosperity Indiana hopes to provide access to this cloud-based tool for at least 100 nonprofit members with the specific goal of meeting the community economic development sector’s diverse data needs.
Goals of Prosperity Indiana’s initiative include providing the system at low- or no-cost, reducing the amount of staff time it takes to track outcomes while providing a better system for doing so, and developing in-house capacity to provide training and technical assistance to members on the data collection, measurement and reporting processes. Prosperity Indiana is also seeking collaboration with other associations and funders to develop a system that meets the needs of the field in such an all-encompassing way that reporting redundancies can be eliminated.
And according to the authors of the Stanford Social Innovation Review article in July 2015, Architecting for Data, we are right on track.
Prosperity Indiana seeks to provide a system that meets four criteria: “organized (stored in a consistent structure), well described (documented formally or informally so folks know what it is and where it came from), accessible (easy available for folks to find and use), and usable (stored in a format people in your organization know how to wrangle).”
Those interested in learning more about Prosperity Indiana’s Outcomes Platform may contact Jessica Love, Associate Executive Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jessica Love is the associate executive director for Prosperity Indiana and works with the executive director to provide team leadership for staff. She is responsible for developing and managing organizational systems for Prosperity Indiana to ensure effective management and control. She also provides one-on-one technical assistance to Prosperity Indiana members, informed by her media and grants management background. With 15 years experience in the nonprofit sector, Love’s consulting work focuses primarily on resource development and creating processes and tools for effective management and program compliance.