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measuring impact

Doing Good Work is No Longer Enough

There is an increasing drumbeat in the world of social change that nonprofits must start measuring their work. Thought leaders like Mario Morino with Leap of Reason, Bill Shore’s recent blog post “What Does Success Look Like?” and David Henderson’s (recently interviewed on the Social Velocity blog here) ongoing Full Contact Philanthropy blog, to name a few, are adding to the chorus.

The argument among thought leaders, funders, raters and others in the social change sector is increasingly that nonprofits MUST:

  1. Figure out what they exist to do (a theory of change)
  2. Create a disciplined operational model for creating that change
  3. Measure whether the change is actually happening
  4. Articulate that change in order to garner more support

But all of this is fairly new to the nonprofit sector and not yet widely practiced (by a long shot). In fact, some of these ideas are still quite controversial. Let’s take #2 for example, “Creating a disciplined operational model.” David Henderson analyzes this well in his post last week. Although David gets a little bogged down in jargon, his idea is a really great, but probably touchy, one.

He argues that nonprofits must become more discerning and disciplined about who they provide service to. Because nonprofits have limited resources, they cannot serve everyone. Therefore instead of serving people on a first come first served basis (which is the norm), they should instead serve those who they can best help. In other words, they should determine and then serve those populations of people who will benefit the most from their intervention:

In the case of the youth workforce development program, while all low-income youth would qualify for services, we might have a preference for placing people into the program who are likely to complete the internship. In this case, one could use historical data to fit a predictive model that provides some insight into what characteristics made an individual more or less likely to have completed the program in the past. Under this framework, social welfare maximization would involve not only placing people into the program, but maximizing the number of people in the program who complete the internship.

The idea is that instead of filling up the program with any youth who have a need, the nonprofit would create more social change by thoughtfully selecting types of children on whom they could have the most impact.

To the nonprofit world, which is very much focused on trying to help as many people as possible, this is a potentially radical idea. But if smartly employed, nonprofits could actually provide more social change through this disciplined method. And in an increasingly resource-constrained environment, it makes sense for nonprofits to want to get the highest return on their program resources.

In order to take this approach, however, nonprofits must have a theory of change. You cannot create social change if you don’t:

  • Know what you want that change to be, and
  • Measure whether that change is happening

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, it is getting harder and harder for nonprofits to attract support. The harsh reality is that those nonprofits that develop a smart theory of change, measure whether that change is happening, and then articulate the change to supporters will increasingly be the ones that survive. Not to mention that they will be the ones that actually create social change.

Photo Credit: Colin Smith

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