Measuring impact in the non-profit and social sector

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It’s nearing the end of the calendar year as I write this, and measurement naturally arises during this season. How did your public or social sector organization do in the past year? Did you move closer to fulfilling your mission, or did you spin your wheels for 12 months?

It’s hard to find measures worth tracking, but I think much difficulty is solved if you have a measurable mission statement. You might think that “measurable mission statement” is an oxymoron, but I’ll give you a couple examples from my career.

I once worked at an education non-profit with the mission “to promote excellence, achieve equity, and improve learning for children, youth, and adults.” That sounds nice, but I was never clear how I was supposed to know if we had promoted excellence, and to what end? We might improve learning, but exactly how, and how would we know?

I thought we should change the mission to “increasing educational achievement and closing achievement gaps for children, youth and adults.” At least then we could latch onto some measurable outcomes. Many measures exist for educational achievement and achievement gaps at the local, state, national and international level.

On the other hand, I started my career at Microsoft, where the mission statement aimed for “a computer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software.” That’s huge, but it’s also measurable. See a desk or home without a computer? if so, then there’s still work to do.

This isn’t to say non-profits are bad and for-profits are good. I also worked for years at a for-profit company with the mission of “knowledge to shape your future.” Any guess as to what they did, for whom specifically and why? That vagueness was in some ways the point, but I think the vagueness ultimately doesn’t help them.

In the end, organizations need a logic model, also known as a theory of change or theory of action. ThisĀ  conceptual model lays out how an organization gathers inputs and adds value to them through processes or activities to create outputs which have the organization’s desired outcomes.

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In your theory of action, inputs flow through process to create outputs that contribute to the outcomes that support your mission.

Once you’re clear on your logic model, then you have very specific items to measure. Start by measuring your outcomes. You can then work your way back through outputs, processes/activities, and inputs to locate ways to improve your outcomes.

For-profit businesses prefer the term “business model” (link to previous post), but it’s really the same concept at heart. Without clarity on the logic model, everything else is muddled and ineffective. This applies to all organizations; my current for-profit employer is struggling to clarify their logic model of how they create value for customers and make money for investors in the process.

If useful measurement is eluding at the end of the year, don’t despair–there’s always next year. Just by starting to measure, you’ll make progress.

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