Most communicators in nonprofit organizations understand the importance of data and reporting back to our stakeholders about what we’re doing and how our programs are succeeding.

We have to communicate not only our outputs: how many people we served; how many shelter beds we offered; or how many meals we served. We also need to have a good understanding of the outcomes of our work so we can communicate our impact: whether there have been some real changes in how people feel about our services; how they moved from being homeless to being able to stay in their own place; or how they are no longer dependent on food banks. How can we put the foundation in place so we have the right data for communicating impact?

What follows is a review of a new book that can tell us just that.

Let’s start with how I would have described the outcome of a program I worked on many years ago:

In the last year, our recreational program has supported 100 youth with a disability.

Now compare the above to the following – how I could have described the same program:

Through our recreational program, 100 youth with a disability could experience the joy of participating in sports.

Over the full year, 95% of the youth showed up at least twice a month and participated in the activities offered.

From follow-up interviews, we learned that all youth felt healthier and their quality of life improved.

Wouldn’t you agree that story #2 has more impact and you’d be more inclined to support that program?

That is the premise behind Impact & Excellence: Data-Driven Strategies for Aligning Mission, Culture, and Performance in Nonprofit and Government Organizations by Sheri Chaney Jones.

Nonprofit communicators must start communicating impact

The point that Jones wants to make: In today’s climate of diminishing funds, your organization needs to embrace a data-driven culture and learn how to measure and communicate impact and outcomes to build stronger relationships with stakeholders. As it becomes more difficult to raise funds for your programs and other activities, only the highest-performing organizations will continue to be successful at doing so.

Jones is well placed to write this book and give us advice. As president and founder of Measurement Resources Company, she’s been advising government and nonprofit organizations for the last 15 years on how to take their organizations to the next level by becoming more accountable and focused on data-driven decision making.

Building a culture of data and measurement

Based on her own research of 200 government and nonprofit organizations, she found that only a small number of organizations have a culture in place that values data and measurement. But such a culture is needed. Those organizations that have such a culture ensure better organizational outcomes and allow them to do more good in the communities they serve.

Five elements of a data-driven organization

Over 250 plus pages, through case studies, templates and study questions, she makes a strong case for data driven change – to collect, organize and use impactful data and information.

In her mind, to become a data-driven organization, five elements need to come together; what Jones calls the five “Cs”.

  1. First, your organization needs to have the right culture and leadership in place.
  2. You will need to be able to clarify your organization’s mission and link to what is important to those you serve. As public policy consultant Barbara Riley writes in the foreword: “Remember, you serve not just the consumers of your direct service, but also the funders, the decision makers, the general public, and the staff who work with you and share your vision.” (p. ix)
  3. Next, you need to capture impact – based not only on your outputs but also the outcomes of your work. Adds Riley: “[T]he process does not end with data collection, or even data analysis, but puts the data to use in making decisions about what you will continue to do, what you will change, and what you may choose to abandon.” (p. ix)
  4. Then you will have to communicate value – that is, you will have to share what you’ve learned.
  5. Finally, taking your learnings into account, you may have to change how you do things; that said you also want to celebrate your successes.

Jones puts much emphasis on having the right culture in place – one that appreciates the importance of measuring outcomes. At the same time, Jones insists you can only measure (or find what to measure) if you are clear about what it is that you want to accomplish. Of course, this should be obvious, but unfortunately, so often it is not.

As Jones writes:

“If an organization attempts to establish a measurement culture without a clear mission in place, it runs the risk of measuring the wrong outcomes. Such a mistake can prove costly, taking the organization further away from its desired state. A clear mission can guide the appropriate activities and measures needed if the organization is to advance to greater impact and excellence.” (p. 145)

The fourth C, to communicate value, to communicate what you’ve learned, obviously speaks to the communicators among us. As Jones writes, “Regardless of the strategies employed to successfully capture impact, an organization must follow a clear plan to communicate results.” (p. 193).

Introducing the chapter on communicating value, she writes:

“Every government and nonprofit organization that embraces a high-performance measurement culture adopts established measures to collect and evaluate quality information. When this information is communicated, it leads directly to greater impact and excellence. The measures themselves are not responsible for success. Rather, success is driven by a social sector leader’s ability to accurately gather, interpret, and convey information, applying it across the organization, and drawing from it to tell the organization’s story in a compelling manner. … Clearly communicated outcomes further enhance the potential these organizations have to attract new donors, increase public awareness, and shape positive attitudes toward their cause.” (p. 194)

It will take time to become a data-driven organization. You will have to show endurance and passion. Most importantly, you have to be a good communicator.

The lessons, value and role for nonprofit communicators

You need to communicate to the inside of your organization – and keep everyone engaged in the process. And you need to communicate to the outside to let them know about what you’ve achieved, what the achievements mean to your stakeholders (your clients, funders and supporters) and what you’ve learned from your outcomes.

It’s not an easy book to implement. The details may overwhelm you – but it is worth your time. While you may not be the main driver for your organization to adopt a high-impact measuring culture, you can be an important influencer. And others in the organization will depend on you to tell a relevant story. Once you are a data-driven organization focused on excellence, you will be better equipped to face the challenges (and changes) that you are guaranteed to encounter.

Further reading:

Markus Stadelmann-Elder

Markus Stadelmann-Elder

Director of Communications at Maytree
Since arriving in Toronto from Switzerland in 1992, Markus has worked and volunteered in a number of communications roles, including leading an in-house design team at Lavalife, Toronto’s largest online dating company, and managing the communications team at Variety Village. In January 2009, Markus joined Maytree, a charitable foundation focused on reducing poverty and inequality in Canada and building strong civic communities.
Markus Stadelmann-Elder