Measuring Success AND Impact?

Jun 22, 2015 | Management and Leadership, Philanthropy Journal, Resources

Nonprofits need to be frank with funders and make sure their measures used to show success and impact are already in place so that new funding requiring certain measurements will not create mission drift.

April Anthony Head shot smallSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By April Anthony

When I entered the world of fundraising almost three decades ago, no one was talking about impact. Donors were making donations out of the goodness of their hearts and did not ask about how their donation made a difference. Now setting goals and benchmarking success through outcomes and impact continues to be a hot topic of conversation for nonprofits and their funders. Both seem to be in a quandary on how to measure success and impact. Nonprofits want to know how to link their activities to outputs and outcomes, and how to collect the data. Individuals, foundations and corporate donors want to know “How is my donation impacting the work of a nonprofit through its mission?” If one measures success through impact then are they one and the same? Many nonprofits are measuring their impact by tracking programmatic statistics like the number of people served, families fed or housed, number of patients served, but are those statistics really a measure of the impact your organization is making?

Success in the for-profit world is measured by profit, a low staff turnover rate and high customer satisfaction, to name a few. Nonprofits work hard to create strategic plans, development plans and Board development plans – all in an effort to attain goals and achieve their mission and vision. Measuring the success of an organization for many entails ensuring a strategic plan is implemented and does not sit on a shelf, carrying out a development plan to create revenue diversity and sustainability and implementing a Board development plan in an effort to guarantee diversity in makeup, attain 100% participation as part of the annual Board campaign and training Board members to feel comfortable fundraising.

Inputs and OutcomesArmstrong McGuire Logo

In an article written by Richard Larkin in July, 2013 “Using Outcomes to Measure Nonprofit Success” he talks about the measurement conundrum and the three types of data that might be used to measure a nonprofit’s success:

  1. Inputs describe how much in the way of resources (both financial and non-financial, such as volunteer time, materials, equipment, etc.) was used to conduct an activity.
  2. Outputs measure the activities conducted by the organization, such as the number of classes held, the number of students enrolled or graduated, the number of concerts performed and number of concertgoers attending, the number of members enrolled, and the like. The problem with this type of data is that, while it shows the quantity of program services provided, it does not indicate whether any real benefits resulted. Did the students learn anything? What was the quality of the concerts? How well were the members served?
  3. Outcomes measure how much better off the organization’s clients, or society as a whole, are as a result of the organization’s activities. For example, by how much has the teenage pregnancy rate in a community been reduced through the efforts of a charity whose mission includes educating children about the undesirable results of getting pregnant so young?

Funders are struggling with this topic just as nonprofits are and while nonprofits are working so hard to prove impact, the dollars might be designated too narrowly. Nonprofits need more foundations to give capacity building grants to help ensure impact is being made. Success and impact will not be achieved as readily with a staff that is stretched or if the organization cannot afford to pay the light bill. Capacity Building grants are designed to strengthen an organization’s long-term sustainability by developing or refining skills, strategies and systems.

The John Rex Endowment, Triangle Community Foundation and the Cary Oil Foundation are all doing a great job offering capacity building grants while some foundations are turning away from capacity building grants and narrowing their focus of giving.

Clarifying Objectives

Marc J. Epstein, coauthor of the new book Measuring and Improving Social Impacts: A Guide for Nonprofits, Companies, and Impact Investors says, “If an organization is unclear or does not communicate clarity on what they specifically want to achieve, it will be more difficult to measure whether their activities or other factors caused changes. So the clarity is critical for both achieving and measuring success. Once they have clarity on objectives, they can focus on whether the sequence of activities they plan to perform can logically be expected to create the desired impacts.”

Building Relationships

The subject of success and impact fascinates me. Over the years I have followed giving trends of foundations and corporate foundations who continue to change the requirements of their grant applications to include sections on “What impact will this funding make?” and “How will it be measured?”  The Carnegie Corporation of New York and other national foundations have done a great job implementing a short application, phone screenings and stepping up site visits – really the only way to see a mission in action and hopefully see and hear about the impact a funder’s dollars are making.


After a grant is awarded it is important to stay close to the funder and let them know the impact their dollars are making throughout the year. If an organization’s goals change or is falling short on the impact promised – let the funder know immediately so that they can be part of the solution. Involve funders in structuring a site visit so that they see and hear what they need to see and hear.

The conversation around success and impact continues and it will be interesting to see who will become a model that others can look to. In many cases it takes time to show impact. Nonprofits need to be frank with funders and make sure their measures used to show success and impact are already in place so that new funding requiring certain measurements will not create mission drift.

April Anthony, Senior Advisor, Armstrong McGuire & Associates, brings 27 years of board development, strategic planning and fundraising experience creating partnerships and recruiting diverse revenue streams for nonprofits and institutions of higher education.  Prior to joining Armstrong McGuire, April served as the Director of Institutional Advancement for North Carolina New Schools where she was responsible for raising funds from federal, state, national foundation, local foundation, corporate and individual donors.  Prior to NC New Schools, April fundraised passionately for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Wake County Boys & Girls Clubs, Make-A-Wish Foundation of Eastern North Carolina, Wake Education Partnership, the Arthritis Foundation and the University of San Diego. April is a 2014 graduate of Leadership North Carolina and a past president of the Triangle Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).  In 2005, April was recognized by the Triangle Chapter as the Outstanding Professional Fundraiser of the Year.  April received her B.A. from Point Loma College, San Diego, CA.  Armstrong McGuire is a North Carolina based firm specializing in organizational planning, leadership development, executive recruitment and fundraising. We believe that non-profits and their stakeholders share a common goal: to improve the lives of people in their community.  We’re in the business of supporting that goal. Since 2003, we have maintained an unwavering commitment to exceeding the expectations of our clients. 

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