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 In Data Analysis Concepts Simplified, Data Resources for Nonprofits, How To

“Are you really making a difference? How do you know?

Working in the nonprofit sector can give you a sense that you’re facilitating important change in the world, but when your benefactor asks you to demonstrate the outcomes of your work, a sense of self-satisfaction and pride in a job well done just isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to need to start measuring the impact of what you do.

We’ve already talked about the difference between counting outputs and counting results, but what steps are required to start measuring impact — and why is it important?

Measuring impact can provide you and your donors with valuable information.  It can help you understand where your work is making the biggest difference.  It can help you make decisions about where to spend limited resources.  It can help you decide what to scale and how.

For those who want a more tangible reason to continue to invest in your goals, measuring impact is the answer. The impact you have on the world around you confers value on the work you do, the money you spend, the donations you collect. So how do you get started?

Determine How Your Work is Changing Things

Measuring impact means using techniques that can determine how people — or plants, or string beans, or whatever you’re working with — are changing as a result of being part of your work.  

That last bit is crucial. Simply measuring change is not the same as measuring impact. To start measuring impact, you must separate which changes are a result of your work and which changes would be occurring anyway. You must measure all changes, but create a way to measure which changes would happen if your work didn’t exist.

All changes - changes that would happen anyway = your impact

 

Sound complicated? Let’s look at an example.

Say I’m working on a project that aims to increase the income of a specific group of people. But it’s possible some of those people would manage to increase their earnings with or without my project. To start measuring the impact of my work, I must:

  • Measure how much each person’s income has increased
  • Work out how much of the increase was happening anyway – if the increase is happening to people both within and without my project, I’m probably not responsible
  • Subtract the increase that would have happened anyway from the total increase
  • The result is the impact of my project – how much of an increase is directly attributable to what I’m doing

Sometimes, this will be complicated. Sometimes complex data analysis will be involved. But there are a few simple steps you can follow to simplify the process.

First Steps to Start Measuring Impact

The easiest way to start measuring impact is to make your goal and your measurements as clear as possible. Once you’ve chosen the outcomes you’re trying to measure:

Step 1: Write a sentence that clearly states what your project is trying to change.

If you have a logic model, this should be in it. If you don’t, no problem — you can write one down now.

Examples:

  • Our project will increase the incomes of people in our community.
  • Our project is designed to decrease obesity in our school system.

Step 2: Write a single sentence that clearly states what you are doing to facilitate that change.

Examples:

  • Our project is providing people with training.
  • Our project is selling more nutritious food in schools.

Step 3: Ensure you can determine — and measure — what is causing the change you see.

If you can measure both what’s is changing and what’s causing the change, you’ll be able to figure out your impact.

Examples:

  • Newcomers with higher incomes could drive up the total community income without any connection to your project.
  • Government-mandated fitness programs could decrease obesity rates in schools.

If you can measure the thing causing the change and the thing changing, you can start measuring impact.

You’re Ready to Get Started

At the most basic level, these three steps are all you need. In upcoming blogs, we’ll go into more detail about how to measure these things, how to measure a few other things (in case you’re feeling ambitious), and how to analyze your measurements to determine what your impact is.

At Datassist, our goal is to help nonprofits, data journalists and government agencies tell their data story in a way that both educates and engages. If you’d like to learn more about how to better leverage your data, get in touch with us today.

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