Big Data Are Great—But Imperfect Metrics Work for Nonprofit Boards

Nonprofit boards need to expand their evaluations of nonprofit managers and their organizations adding more behavioral impacts * to their evaluations.

For example, a nonprofit might count the number of volunteers that have been trained. But boards must go to the next level in the 21st century. In the case of volunteers, they must seek to understand the impacts on those trained. They need, for instance, to understand how well these volunteers are assisting clients and how they are representing the nonprofit to the clients. The training is a process, but it determines their relationships with clients and yields impact data.

Qualitative data must be developed to the next level, and the average nonprofit CEO will argue that he/she doesn’t have the staff or expertise to develop impact data. Engaging an outside organization to complete a simple project can cost thousands of dollars.

Yet funders are asking for these types of data because they know in the nonprofit environment that good program outcomes do not necessarily mean that the organization is creating impacts related to its mission. As one current analyst reported:

** Clear measure of performance and impact will be required by donors (in the coming years). Over and over donors are looking for performance metrics. They want proof that you are doing a good job with their money. …. They want efficiency and effectiveness. Some nonprofits are:

• Talking about their accomplishments in meaningful and measurable ways.
• Demonstrating clear results for the people and causes they serve.
• Turning their annual reports into “impact reports.”

Are Nonprofits In a “No Win” Situation?

They are not in such a situation if they are willing to use imperfect metrics to track progress and drive change. Most funders will accept such measurement if the organization shows it is trying to develop impact data and learning from their experiences over time. With the data, nonprofits can assess impacts on such honorable but vague goals such as “enhance quality of life,” “elevate artistic sensitivity,” or “community commitment.”

The following five-step process can be utilized: ***

Agree on relevant outcomes: The board and management should agree that the metrics reflect organizational impacts, not activities or efforts. Impacts should focus on a desired change in the nonprofit’s universe rather than a set of process activities.
Agree on approaches to evaluation: Many ways to measure—personal interview, mail questionnaires, sampling client records, comparisons with other agencies, comparing imperfect data with similar types of national data.
Agree on specific indicators: Develop behavioral outcomes desired. Example: Mentions in the local newspapers can be used as an indication of public presence.
Agree on judgment rules: Board and management need to agree at the outset upon the impact metrics the organization would like to achieve for each specific indicator that contributes to the desired mission-related objective.
Compare measurement outcome with judgment rule: Assess impacts and then compare results to mission-related objectives to determine contributions to strategic objectives.

Who implements the process?

Few nonprofits will have the person-power or budget to implement the process, but there are other ways to accomplish it to develop impact results.

• Seek a local college class that will assist under the close direction of a professor or a knowledgeable volunteer professional.
• Engage a recently retired professional volunteer, provide him/her with an organizational title (e.g., Director of Measurement Projects) and seek funds from a local foundation to cover costs.
• Ask a local service organization, like Rotary, to fund the project, as a demonstration for X number of years. A business organization might also agree to such funding.
• Seek a doctoral or masters student who might conduct the project in exchange for the ability to publish an article about it. Submit a funding grant to cover costs.

Without some ways of measuring their impact on clients, nonprofits can easily degenerate into monitoring staff activities, mistaking outcomes for impacts. That danger is much greater than the danger of using imperfect metrics. Efforts involving process can easily be measured, but an imperfect metric can be improved with experience over time to reveal impact.


Dr. Eugene Fram
Dr. Eugene Fram
Eugene H. Fram, Ed.D., is an expert in nonprofit governance, a business consultant and an award-winning emeritus professor of the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He is also the author of six books and more than 125 published articles and has been widely quoted by national media on topics ranging from business to high-performance nonprofits. His blog platforms on nonprofit governance have in excess of 3500 followers. He is a past recipient of RIT's highest award for outstanding teaching and one of a very select group awarded the Presidential Medallion, given to those making exceptionally significant contributions to the university. In 2012, a former student anonymously contributed $3 million to endow an RIT Chair in Critical Thinking in his name, an honor Dr. Fram describes as "a professor's dream come true!" Over his distinguished career, he has served on 12 nonprofit boards overseeing diverse community, national and professional organizations, and also has served on five for-profit boards. His particular passion is helping nonprofit boards perform at high levels as more is expected of these boards today than most people realize. He is the author of Going For Impact – The Nonprofit Director's Essential Guidebook: What to Know, Do and Not Do, and POLICY vs. PAPER CLIPS - How Using the Corporate Model Makes a Nonprofit Board More Efficient & Effective.

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