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Measuring Impact, Part 1

How Do You Measure Impact?

"Nonprofit number three, will you accept this rooooose?"

Impact measurement is a big deal to me. It’s the root of the essential trust between a nonprofit and its constituents. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re looking for a nonprofit to support and it isn’t immediately clear how that nonprofit is evaluating or sharing its impact, run away from it. I’m serious. Why? Because impact is, quite literally, every nonprofit’s primary concern. If they weren’t trying to achieve a certain type of impact, why would they exist?

Unfortunately, measuring impact is also one of the most difficult things nonprofits have to do. Think about a for-profit and how it measures its success: dollars, right? Sure, they may consider other factors, but the fundamental concern is revenue, and differentiating between a successful for-profit and an unsuccessful for-profit is relatively straightforward

The success of a nonprofit, by contrast, is measured in degree of impact. The problem is, while dollar amounts are logical and immutable, impact is amorphous, slippery, convoluted, and transient. Say your nonprofit’s goal is to increase literacy by giving books to low-income children in a particular neighborhood. You dutifully measure, and in five years’ time, the children who were given books are higher achievers than the children of five years ago! Awesome! Except…now you have the fun task of figuring out what else might have happened in the neighborhood, besides your book program, that could have increased literacy.

So you do some research and discover that some new educational initiatives were pushed, the local Boys & Girls Club started a popular reading program, and the neighborhood library received an attractive new overhaul. Your books-to-kids program probably did still influence the overall bump in literacy; it’s just that it’s nearly impossible to tell exactly how much. In a case like this, your impact is a guy who’s dating ten people and he refuses to reveal which one is the most important to him (sorry…as you’ll recall, sometimes I watch bad television).

The point is, measuring impact–especially as nonprofits grow city-wide or systemic–is an art form. A maddening, elusive, existential art form with no right answers and a lot of good guesses.

In other words, I love it.

Tomorrow I’m going to show you the first survey I designed to begin the process of measuring The Great Exchange’s impact! Don’t miss it–it’s going to be hot. It’s going shocking. It’s going to be the most controversial season of The Bachel–um, I mean of my blog–yet!


5 responses »

  1. Pingback: Four Things I’ve Learned About Nonprofits From My For-Profit Job « Guess and Check

  2. I’m in the process of filing, but it’s going to take awhile. In the meantime, I’m hunting around for great organizations in Austin who might be willing to offer me some fiscal sponsorship while I’m in the holding period.

    I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds here, but from a design perspective, your blog ( elicits more trust than your web site, Maybe it’s the pictures of money on your web page? I think we’re sort of conditioned to read big, splashy pictures of money as a scam. Just something to consider as you move forward with your awesome organization.

  3. I’m really glad you found my blog and started following me. Through a natural cause and effect, I have now found you and am doing the same. I have a for-profit grant writing business ( I started in October, 2011. Through an obvious chain of events, I’ve made many nonprofit connections (duh, I’m a grant writer). I quickly discovered that I am a philanthropist at heart and I’m slowly but surely going through the motions of incorporating as a nonprofit. I know close to nothing about how to accomplish this; or even more importantly, how to maintain it once accomplished. This is the only post I’ve read so far, but I think there will be many that will help me through this endeavor. I’m glad we came together!

    – Jason

    • I just went through some sort of “Momento” thing with your comments (I read your last ones first). This is the last one I’m replying to. It alllll makes sense now….

      I’m really glad you found my blog too! Not only are you doing meaningful work, but I think we’ll really be able to support each other through the start-up phase. Seems like there are about a million things left to do, so it will be a relief to look to my left and see what you’re up to.

      Thanks for all your comments–they really made my night!

      • What can I say – I’m hooked on your blog! It’s hard to find people that are starting or making the switch to nonprofit status. I’m glad I found you! Where are you exactly in your start-up? Have you incorporated yet? Filed for nonprofit status with the IRS yet?


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