Measure Impact, Not Just Activities

Jessica Gershman

Data and Analytics Director, Forum One

In nonprofit and government communications, we’re working every day to get the message out, engage with key audiences, and motivate them to action. It’s easy to recite a list of all the things you and your team completed that period (e.g., published two reports with thousands of downloads; authored eight blog posts; live-tweeted at three events; sent out 10,000 emails within 1,300 click-throughs; issued a press release); however, it can lead to falling into the reporting trap that I had. To measure impact, not just activities, provide metrics that tell the story of how you are moving your mission forward; not just how many links were clicked.

A few years ago, I was working on a digital communications strategy for a major foundation and it was time to brief the new communications executive on the project and all it had accomplished. 

The client walked into the meeting with one question: “Why should I care?” 

My team and I had been working with his organization for the past year. During that time, we had re-launched the foundation’s website, developed a comprehensive social media engagement plan, set up an email outreach schedule, and put in place an analytics strategy that encompassed the full spectrum of the foundation’s online communications. All in all, a considerable amount of time, effort, and money had been poured into the plan. 

To answer the client, I needed to ensure that I was speaking the same language as leadership and framed success in their terms, especially when it came to how we made an impact. 

Output vs impact

There is a definite difference between “outputs” and “impact” and how we measure them. Outputs are the tangible results of a task or activity. For example, say you have put time into creating a website, these may be some outputs vs. impact:

Measure the Impact, Not Just Activities

Outputs: Published new reports, created an improved page on donations, added technical capacity to make donations easier

Impacts: 150% increase in donations to the organization that increases the capacity to deliver high-quality programming to key audiences, in turn improving their quality of life

The key is in determining how you plan to measure and report on your impact.

Developing an impact measurement plan

To ensure you and your team are able to communicate successfully in terms of moving your mission forward, take some time to reflect on the following questions. 

The big picture
What is your organization trying to achieve through its mission?

You must understand the root of what your organization is trying to achieve and how it collectively defines success before you can demonstrate progress toward it. 

Organizational tactics
What initiatives is the organization taking on to support this mission?

Develop a strong understanding of what work is being done across the organization and how it is internally structured.

Report stakeholders 
Who is leading each of these initiatives?

By knowing who is leading each initiative, you know who will need to provide input into defining success, and who could eventually be using your reporting to make future strategic decisions.

Output metrics
What outputs are being produced for each initiative?

It’s imperative that you know how each work product (e.g., event, report, blog, etc.) supports each initiative, and are able to speak to its outputs in the same terms. In cases where this is not clear, revisit whether or not these products are worth continuing as they are.

Target audiences 
Are these outputs reaching your target and secondary audiences?

When it comes to achieving your mission, not all people have equal value. It’s important that you focus your reporting specifically on those who can make a difference. 

Engagement metrics
Is the target audience using or engaging with the outputs in a constructive way? Did they take constructive action? 

Simply distributing materials to target audiences does not tell us if they actually read, used, or acted on them. Capture their engagement through their actual actions, for example, the time they spent or the depth they scrolled within your website, if they registered and/or attended an event, if they signed a petition, etc.

Impact metrics
What methods can you use to monitor progress toward your mission?  

By reflecting back on your organizational initiatives, conduct a survey of your target audiences to see if you’ve shifted their mindsets or motivated them for action. Additionally, you can leverage existing surveys, polls, ratings, or studies conducted by others to monitor change over time. 

Measuring influence
What were your organization’s contributions to an overall outcome or impact?

You don’t work in a vacuum, and it’s important to acknowledge your role, and the role of others, in an outcome. As an example, a great model that a large nonprofit we’ve worked with uses a three-tiered approach to measure its impact: 

  • Decisive: The weight of evidence suggests the outcome would not have been achieved without the program’s efforts.
  • Important: Multiple factors contributed to the outcome and we played a substantive role.
  • Inconsequential: The program played little or no part in the outcome and would have occurred without its involvement.

Bringing it together

Assembling a holistic digital strategy and quantifying its impact on your mission isn’t easy. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are best practices for both data collection and reporting

It takes a deep understanding of your organization’s mission, what outcomes you are looking to achieve, and how you are working to achieve them in order to develop methods to monitor progress. We’ve worked with many organizations to do just this, so if you are new to analytics strategy, or are looking for ways to tie your analytics strategy to your organizational mission, we’re here to help.

For more on measuring the impact of your activities, be sure to take a look at the results of our 2016 survey “Do Your Communications Efforts Measure Up?”

Written By

Jessica Gershman

Data and Analytics Director, Forum One

Have a specific measurement question?

Each organization is unique with its own communications and measurement challenges. If you’d like to go over some specific questions you are still struggling with, feel free to get in touch. We’d be happy to set up a call to chat.