As an industry, nonprofits aren’t used to understanding, measuring, and communicating the value of their program -and this last part is key – in service of their staff and clients first. In part, this is because historically we’ve tied data collection to accountability. When nonprofits set up infrastructure for data collection, 99% of the time it is for the purpose of giving it away in the form of grant reports, annual reports, or board updates.
This isn’t just unique to nonprofits – this problem is deeply embedded in our culture and it has been for centuries. Think back to taking those standardized tests in grade school – those tests were used to judge whether or not you were doing well enough to make it to the next grade. They were also used to judge whether or not your teachers and your school as a whole were meeting standards.
The whole concept of measurement is so rooted in accountability, it’s hard for us to think about using data for anything else.
During the past 30 years, the field of philanthropy has seen a significant rise in outcome-oriented grantmaking. This shift is connected to the idea that generally, grantmaking should be able to point to a particular problem it is solving. You see the aftermath of this in your role as a nonprofit leader – every grant application you fill out is tailored to the particular problem each funder is trying to solve. Therefore, the data you collect and report is in service of measuring how well a particular needle is moving. It makes sense in its’ simplest form, but when you run an organization that has 10, 20, or 30 grants – you end up spending more money and time collecting data to give away to your funders than you do collecting data to help you actually serve your clients better.
This dynamic leads to another main component of this problem:
That is the belief that running a program and measuring the outcomes of a program are two different things. This separation occurs naturally when you think about the idea that you collect different data to report to different funders during different times in the cycle of your program. The more funders you have for any given program, the more data you collect to report to those funders. Because like you, nonprofits likely don’t have time to collect all the data. In my experience, they usually end up guesstimating just to meet deadlines.
When you get caught in the vicious cycle of collecting data to give away to your funders, and scrambling to get that data together every time you have a grant deadline, you are unintentionally setting yourself and your organization up to let go of the very reason you’re in this industry in the first place: to actually help people.
By reframing your data collection to be in service of your program’s ability to meet the needs of your clients first, and your funders second – you will build a culture of data collection that works in service of the clients you serve, and your funders will undoubtedly be impressed. You do this by mapping out the ins and outs of running your programming, connecting it to the longer-term impacts you are trying to achieve, and then setting a clear intention for what data you need to deliver better services.
Get yourself out of the mindset of tying data to solely accountability, and into the mindset of using data to be the go-to place to receive the services you provide and the go-to place to support those services.
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