Collecting, tracking and managing nonprofit data are important ways to measure and quantify the good work your organization does for your community. Tracking data empowers you and your stakeholders to understand how your services are affecting your program participants or constituents. Plus, when you have a handle on your data, you are better equipped to make educated and strategic decisions about what comes next for your programs, and your organization.
At a macro level, the data you should be tracking are your outputs, outcomes and overall impact. Outputs are the data points you’ve probably been tracking for the longest period of time already. An example of an output would be how many students attended an after-school program or how many school supplies were given to a school system. Outcomes are the changes brought about from the outputs you have produced. So, in our educational program example, an outcome would be that a large percentage of the students who are attending the after-school program regularly have improved school attendance overall or that the classes utilizing the donated school supplies achieve higher test scores. Impact is about how you are making systemic, lasting change through your outputs and outcomes. An impact measure in our example would be, over time, a district-wide improvement in student attendance, well-being, and academic performance, with measurable improvement of graduations, college placements and successful careers. Essentially, impact is how close we get to say, “problem solved.”
But, even within these three categories, there’s just so much data available to measure! How can you prioritize what to track? Here are five ideas to guide your next steps with nonprofit data collection, tracking and analysis:
The data you track should directly lead to more funding. Funding, either from federal or local government sources or from private foundations, is the backbone of nonprofits and their operations. After all, there can be no service delivery without funding dollars to back it up. The key to recurring and pervasive funding is collecting and reporting on data that your funders want to see. They aren’t interested in just outputs – they want to see the outcomes that are associated with them. Look at your outputs and determine how you can weave data points together to build a picture of progress and change. Find data that backs that up and proves that you are doing good work for your community through your programs.
Impact can be hard to quantify. In a way, it can feel like trying to measure the galaxy – it’s just so big. In our smoking cessation example, the goal would be that the clients should exit or graduate from your nonprofit’s course because they don’t need your services any longer. So, what is your organization doing to ensure that the people in the program have the tools to not take up smoking again, and how are you viewing your program as a way to solve an overarching problem in the community? Find data that shows that you are not only solving temporary issues, but you’re also making lasting change in the community you’re serving. How are you changing the community at large with your services and how have you changed it so far? Think about these questions and the types of data points you’ll need to track to answer them.
Helping your program participants and solving an overarching problem prevalent in your community are the reasons you started your nonprofit in the first place. It only makes sense to track data that will showcase why they need your services, how your organization is supporting them in the short term, and how you are transforming people’s lives for the better over the long term. And although the vast majority of your data should be quantitative, this type of data that fuels storytelling can also be qualitative. Your clients are real people, and it’s important for you to share their real stories so that you can show how your services are truly changing their lives throughout the course of their participation in your programs.
Let’s face it – your nonprofit is going to face challenges as you seek to effect lasting change. It’s normal to have periods where nothing seems to be going the way you expected. It’s important to track data during those times to see what is contributing to these setbacks so that you’ll have a better idea of what you can do to avoid them in the future. Don’t be afraid to document things that haven’t gone according to plan. Your funders and stakeholders are interested in the good and the bad – the truth.
Your organization should, at the very least, be able to see your operations from an end-to-end point of view. That means that you can see the entire journey that a program participant goes through from the start of their participation to when they exit. That also means that you can see all the inner workings of each program you’re running, how they are serving your clients and how they roll up through your organization as a whole. Tracking this data is the only way you can truly understand what’s working over the course of time, what you can improve, and how you can expand your good work.
These are by no means the only types of data your organization could be tracking, but, this is a great place for you to start or check off when you’re making sure your organization is tracking what it needs to in order to get more funding, more resources, and more support going into the future.
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