We Did WHAT!?!: Nonprofit Data Collection Basics
Updated: Nov 9
Nonprofits are rightly compelled to measure and share their work with the public. Charitable organizations exist to contribute to the public good, and they need to demonstrate that they are, in fact, serving the public good.
Unfortunately, showing that your program "works" or has "impact" is difficult. How do we prove that our program was the catalyst for someone getting a job or GED? Perhaps a simpler way of approaching this challenge is to show that our programs “matter” because they meet common needs or address social problems.
To show that our work matters, we need to collect data on our services and results.
I like using a what and how much approach to think about the data we need to collect. This approach requires us to answer two questions:
What are we providing or achieving?
How much of it are doing?
Simple, right? Well, we're not done yet. We need to know two more concepts to collect meaningful what and how much data - outputs and outcomes.
Outputs are basically units of service. An output might be a meal provided or a 30 minute coaching session, or you might decide a night in your shelter or backpack full of school supplies are outputs for your organization.
The outputs you measure represent the work you are doing day-to-day. Outputs are typically easy to measure by their nature of being units of service. For Example:
We distributed 2,500 free diapers last quarter. (what=diapers. how much=2,500)
Our clinic provided 75 free checkups last month. (what=checkups, how much = 75)
A single output might not have a big impact on the life of the participant or the larger community. For example, if your organization runs an employment program, one coaching session may not lead to higher wages or a better job. However, the outputs your organization provides can foster the meaningful achievements you care about.
Outcomes reflect a significant, positive impact on an individual, community, or something broader. Outcomes are the things you want to achieve through your outputs.
A participant getting a full time job or a homeless family obtaining stable housing are examples of individual outcomes. Some programs might want to track community or societal outcomes such as the reduction in violence in a neighborhood or improving on-time high school graduation rates in the US.
Outcomes can be harder to define and measure than outputs. The terms living wage, stable housing, and great academic achievement are vague and must be defined so they can be tracked consistently. Your mission and purpose should guide you toward the types of outcomes on which to focus. However, you'll have to define the outcomes based on what's meaningful to you and possibly standard practices in your field.
Why Measure Outputs AND Outcomes?
You're might be thinking that measuring all these "things" might get in the way of just doing good work. I've felt that way before too. You're partly right. Measuring "things" takes time and thought; but it's well worth it for most organizations for a couple of reasons.
First, outputs lead to outcomes. Measuring both outputs and outcomes helps us understand how they are connected. The best way to know the amount and types of work that go into your big achievements is to count them both.
For example, 10 weekly job coaching sessions, 2 resume workshops, 3 financial management classes, and 1 frantic trip the participant's home because they don’t have $4 for bus fare, could result in the following outcomes:
Participant has benefits with employment - insurance and PTO
Participant has a balanced monthly budget
Participant has stable housing
This series of outputs can lead to meaningful and life-changing outcomes, and we need data on both to really understand their relationships.
Second, you need rich output and outcome data to tell your full story. Donors and funders need to know that it take 50 hours of coaching and support to help an unemployed person get a job. They also need to know that it used to take 100 hours, but you've improved your approach in the past 3 years. The only way you can tell this story is if you have the data to support it.
Simple Yet Challenging
This what and how much approach to show your work matters seems simple, but it is full of challenges and tradeoffs that should be examined over time. These tradeoffs can make it hard to decide what to count and what to ignore.
The best place to start is by asking yourself what are a few important outcomes we want to achieve ? What outputs do we provide that get promote those outcomes? Just by getting started, you'll begin to reflect on value and meaning of your data. Over time, you’ll see how useful (or not) your data are and make adjustments.
Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.
countbubble is nonprofit data management software simplified. Learn how we can help your nonprofit spend less time on data, and more time supporting your community.
Founder, CountBubble, LLC