April 6, 2020
Mass. Nonprofits Are Getting Better at Measuring Outcomes

January 7, 2014 — Massachusetts nonprofits of all sizes recognize the importance of measuring outcomes in attracting and retaining financial support and are getting better at what can be a complex task, but many, especially smaller organizations, are grappling with how to do it, according to a number of community-based funders.

The funders shared their views with www.massnonprofit.org in connection with their expectations for the Massachusetts nonprofit sector over the next year.

“Impact measurement is really good, and it helps nonprofits think about how they’re making a difference, but many don’t have enough staff time or expertise, or resources to hire an outside consultant," said Sandi Clement McKinley, director of advisory services, for the Nonprofit Finance Fund, New England Region, based in Boston.

Recognizing that many nonprofits think their work is hard to measure, and that impact is measured differently from one sub-sector to the next, McKinley suggested that anxiety over the issue will abate as nonprofits in general come to share a common understanding of key terms: “We hear that people are getting really good about collecting data—the what?—but still have to get better about using it – the now what? Nonprofits will get more clarity about meaning of impact as its gets more input, and we’ll see more clarity around these issues in 2014."

McKinley distinguished between impact (results of a program) vs. outputs (number of people served) vs. outcomes (meaningful changes resulting from an entire program).

Reflecting the need for a common vocabulary around measurement, Katie Allan Zobel, president and CEO of the Springfield-based Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, said the desire to measure, not only by governments or foundations, but also by business partners and individuals, is “a wonderful movement in our field. However, it’s not a perfect science and there’s not a widely understand set of principles that determine value."

She added," Fundraising is all about matchmaking – finding funders who want to invest in the work you’re doing and the results you want. The better you do this, the better the match will be."

Zobel also noted that measuring impact and outcomes helps nonprofits better understand themselves and therefore helps them avoid failing, even if it is still not fully clear what failing means. Most importantly, she said, is “to keep moving forward even if we don’t have all the answers."

"Many Nonprofits Are Not Measuring Strategically"

Dave Welbourn, president and CEO of Essex County Community Foundation, based in Danvers, said, “Generally, organizations are not thinking about measuring strategically to help them figure out their processes and prognoses and tell them what their impact is. They’re measuring the way they always have."

He said useful measurement flows from deciding what to measure: “Analysis is key to improvement, and goals inform measures. It’s great to have big goals—if not, you’re wasting your time—but then you need creative measures. It takes work to find the right measure."

Noting that nonprofits “are hungry for more information on measuring outcomes and ways that they can quantify their impact," Kristin O'Malley, executive director of the Cape Cod Foundation in Yarmouthport, said, “Nonprofits are growing increasingly aware of the need to measure their results and use data to tell their stories."

She cautioned, however, that nonprofits need to take care not to overwhelm donors or funders with data, but rather to use data to supplement the story they have to tell to let supporters understand the impact they’re having.

Smaller Nonprofits Face Resource Challenges, But Are Finding Solutions

Craig Dutra, president of the Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts in New Bedford, while observing that nonprofits are “being conscientious and trying to quantify impact and outcomes, to differentiate themselves," the more sophisticated organizations, generally, are more successful in ascertaining their clients’ or users’ experience to develop their brand and stand apart from others.

“We’ve seen smaller organizations do it very well," he said. “It depends on the talent they’re able to attract to their boards and as volunteers."

Judy Salerno, executive director of the Foundation for MetroWest in Framingham, echoed that sentiment, noting that nonprofits of all sizes and across all sub-sectors are making progress “just by understanding the need to collect data and be data centric in their interactions with funders."

However, she said, “You need current tools, which are expensive, and the people to use them. This can disadvantage smaller organizations, but those that can recognize it and work it will do well."

Salerno added, “Competition for charitable dollars has grown tougher in the last few years, and it places additional challenges on smaller nonprofits. They need to be smarter about how they spend their time, focusing on things they do well and on things where they can get more visibility."

One way that some smaller nonprofits are getting a handle on measuring inputs and outcomes while controlling the costs of collecting this data, is by pooling resources.

According to Tim Garvin, president and CEO of United Way of Central Massachusetts, based in Worcester, a collaboration of seven local, youth-oriented nonprofits, called YouthConnect, recently jointly purchased Efforts to Outcomes, a performance management software system that enables users to see outcomes based on inputs and outputs they enter.

“We’re excited because we’re a major funder of YouthConnect, and for them to develop the data we need to see as a funder will also let us be able to tell our story to our donors," Garvin said.

He noted that while some smaller nonprofits, those with annual budgets of $1 million or less, effectively use data to tell their story, many smaller organizations need to keep their investment in information technology from diverting funds from their primary work.

“The more that nonprofits can find to work together, the better they’ll be, not just by saving money, but by engaging in more collaborative efforts," Garvin said.

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