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Betsy Nelson: Defining and measuring success with data

Betsy Nelson: Defining and measuring success with data

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As a membership organization of foundations and corporate giving programs, the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers has had a longstanding interest in increasing the funding community’s capacity to support and use data to inform decision making.

We have seen increased interest by funders in measuring the impact of their grant dollars. The desire to target resources where they can lead to better outcomes has become greater as funding gets tighter and community needs are more pressing.

These days, it feels like each dollar counts even more. Whether through a formal evaluation process or through more informal monitoring and reporting process, funders look to program evaluations to show effectiveness and guide their grantmaking decisions.

Periodically ABAG provides training and technical assistance to members about measurement and evaluation and assessment. While there is greater awareness of the need to reflect on performance, this still remains a challenge for many, if not most, nonprofit organizations.

Part art, part science

Many of us in the field have an interest in increasing nonprofit organizations’ capacity to conduct evaluations of their programs. The truth is that it isn’t easy.

ABAG enlisted a consultant to help us better understand what impact the organization wants to have on members and the larger community, and to identify how to assess success. Many hours — truthfully, days — were spent thinking about this, resulting in an evaluation plan.

The process gave us a more realistic understanding of ABAG’s work, who and what the organization can influence, and a system for tracking what ABAG does and what the result of the work is.

I admit that it remains partly art, partly science. Just last week we reconfigured how to assess one of ABAG’s major program areas. Being dedicated to measuring and evaluating your work takes real effort.

I have come to believe in the importance of asking questions about impact and success. What would success look like? How would you know if you achieved it? And then, to be realistic both about the results you can achieve and how much you can know about these results.

Not just a measuring stick

Evaluation is not just a measuring stick. It is also a management and learning tool. One way to better understand how well an organization does its work is a “Before and After” Action Review.

The concept is that we can all be continually improving our practice and the best way to do that is to take the time to reflect on activities, candidly assess what happened, and pull out learnings to move forward.

Most organizations’ natural tendency is to say “that’s over — on to the next.” An action review is a structured process that can enable groups to learn from and improve their practice.

I still am a big fan of measuring success and continue with the quest to better understand ABAG’s impact, but I am also more comfortable with looking for the indicators of success rather than the absolute quantifiables.

While sometimes an anecdote is simply one instance of something good happening, it may actually be indicative of real impact. The trick is to discern how much one can generalize from those instances.

Betsy Nelson, president of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, writes every other week for The Daily Record. She can be reached at 410-727-1205 or [email protected].

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