The Imperative for Impact

Throughout the past year, Mission Capital has provided backbone support to a group of Central Texas Funders known as the Evaluation and Learning Collaborative (ELC). The goal of this collaborative is to provide nonprofits the training, resources and tools they need to collect and analyze data in order to better understand their impact.

On November 17, Mission Capital and the ELC hosted the Data Institute, a private gathering for grant partners. This conference-style event was a unique opportunity for nonprofits to explore the critical role that data plays in building stronger, more effective nonprofits, while also gaining new skills, knowledge and ideas from data and evaluation experts.

The keynote session was presented by Andrew Means, co-founder of Chicago’s Impact Lab. We were honored to have Andrew share his message, which focused on the vital role that data must play in helping organizations become more effective and efficient. He emphasized several key points for nonprofits to embrace in regards to leveraging data for impact:

1. Nonprofits exist to create change

Ultimately our success should be based on the impact we create, and not simply the stories we tell. Our organizations exist for the purpose of creating change in the world. While this statement isn’t a surprise for any of us working in the sector, Andrew pointed out that often nonprofits are forced to compete with one another on the basis of who tells the best story, or who has the most influential board members, rather than who creates the greatest impact.

2. Nonprofits needs better infrastructure to collect, analyze and share data

The sector needs to encourage results-driven leaders to set up systems, processes and tools, both within their organizations, and across the sector, to gather evidence about what works. This is not an easy process, but Andrew encourages organizations to start with the basics:

  • Be concrete about what we are trying to achieve. While working at YMCA of Chicago, one of Andrew’s first tasks was to define what the organization truly meant by “changing the lives of kids.” He held extensive conversations with staff, board, volunteers and clients to better understand the change they were seeking, and discover what data was needed to measure that change.
  • Gather evidence that shows the quantity and quality of our work. It’s not enough to simply report on outputs, such as the number of clients served. We must also find and report on the evidence that assesses the depth of our services to our clients.
  • Get clear about what impact really is (and isn’t). Impact is a buzzword we hear all the time in our sector. In order to assess our programmatic impact, we have to consider two worlds: one in which our organization exists and the other in which we do not. In many cases, an organization might claim to have made an impact on a client, when in fact that client would have experienced the same end result regardless of our program.

3. We must share our evidence transparently.

Right now there is little incentive in our sector to share data transparently with other organizations, or in many cases, even with our donors. However, if our organizations hope to truly understand what works and for whom, we have to be more open to sharing this information. This is not always an easy thing to do, but as Andrew noted, we don’t exist to increase our budget by 10% each year, we exist to create change.

4. It’s not about the quantity of data, but the quality of insight.

Nonprofits are often drowning in data. Yet how often is collected data used to increase the effectiveness of our programs and services? Andrew challenged us to think creatively about how we can take the evidence we gather about our programs and use it on a day-by-day basis to support continued improvement.

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