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Measuring what matters: Custom training in Augusta

For decades, nonprofits measured their work by counting the number of people served or programs delivered. That’s no longer enough: Today, stakeholders want to see the return on their investment. Because issues like poverty, inadequate schools, preventable chronic illness, and more are still prevalent, despite our hard work and large investment of funds, the funding community wants to know that their contribution will actually “move the needle.”

That’s why The Community Foundation for the Central Savannah River Area (CFCSRA) hired GCN to deliver custom training in Performance Measurement Outcomes and Results for 60 of its grantees on-location in Augusta. Over two days in February, GCN Senior Consultant and EVP Kathy Keeley met with two different classes of management-level nonprofit staff at Augusta’s historic Caye Chapel to lead them through the fundamentals of writing effective performance measures: why they’re important, how they’re best formulated, and the practices that go into identifying, tracking, communicating, and leveraging them.

“At a time when the search for nonprofit dollars is becoming more competitive, proposals must connect work to documentable changes in the community to be funded,” said Rebecca Wallace, CFCSRA Director of Grants and Community Engagement. “This training in outcome measures could make the difference for any nonprofit.”

Measures are critical to evaluating performance, reporting impact, and making the case for your organization as a worthy investment. But not all measures are equal: There are those that show what you’ve done, and those that show the difference you’ve made. One measures outputs, and the other measures outcomes. You can probably guess which is more important to grantmakers, donors, and other stakeholders, like your board.

Measures are critical to evaluating performance, reporting impact, and making the case for your organization as a worthy investment. But not all measures are equal: There are those that show what you’ve done, and those that show the difference you’ve made.

The Augusta-area nonprofit staffers who gathered in mid-February – among them representatives from America’s Warrior Partnership and the Morris Museum of Art – brought a range of challenges with them, among them the need to clearly communicate their value, differentiate themselves, and manage the expectations of funders, board members, and other stakeholders. The way to address all these challenges, Keeley instructed, is to focus on outcomes – the results of what you do. “If you tell someone that 100 people went through your employment readiness program, the obvious question is, ‘So what?’” said Keeley. “Here’s what matters: 60 percent of those participants ended up landing a job that paid 150 percent of the minimum wage, and kept that job for at least 90 days.”

In short, outcomes tell the story of your nonprofit in terms of benefits to your customer: The change in their knowledge, skills, or behavior. Outcomes must be measurable in a way that indicates your progress toward a goal (like “Lowering unemployment in our state”), and they must have a baseline you can use to assess current conditions, set goals, and track progress. In addition to better stakeholder communications, understanding your outcomes allows you to measure your performance, create meaningful and realistic objectives, align your organization’s efforts, and improve your systems.

In short, outcomes tell the story of your nonprofit in terms of benefits to your customer: The change in their knowledge, skills, or behavior.

When done properly, outcome measures are always expressed as a percent, ratio, or dollar amount – never as a tally. Here are some examples:

  • 80% of program participants in stable housing for 12 months or more
  • 75% surveyed said our performance met their artistic expectations
  • 60% of learning kitchen attendees cook 3 or more family meals per week
  • Volunteer teams exceeded last year’s fundraising event total by $10,000

Results measures stated as goals follow a similar formula, consisting of a broad goal (or headline), an indicator, and a specific target:

  • Healthy Babies
    • 90% of children in our county immunized before kindergarten
  • Kids on-track for high school graduation
    • 75% of third-grade students reading at grade level

You can determine the right “indicator” by identifying those conditions you have influence over, which you can measure reasonably, and for which you have (or can get) baseline data. You’ll need to calibrate your target to some kind of baseline conditions, which could be determined through current in-house information, an average of results from the last three years, or external benchmarking.

By lunchtime, each class was working in teams to create sample outcomes measures to fit a number of scenarios, cause areas, and even individual departmental concerns – these methods can also be used to measure and plan for department-specific work, using an internal audience, process, or resource as your “beneficiary.” (For instance, a development office with the goal to “Diversify funding” might set the objective, “Secure $50,000 in corporate donations.”) By the end of the day, they were ready to take their new knowledge back to the office and begin developing new, more powerful measurements systems.

To meet the needs of cohorts across the state, we’re continuously adapting our expertise to custom engagements like the CFCSRA’s; this one-day crash course was based in the comprehensive, four-part Certificate of Performance Management series we offer twice annually through Nonprofit University. For more on the topic, consider signing up for the next certificate series, which begins May 22; or let us know how we can deliver the custom training your people need, wherever it’s most convenient for them, by reaching out to Nonprofit University at [email protected] or 678-916-3001.

Marc Schultz is communications editor at GCN.

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