(An Aside)

Before we get started on the topic of measuring, I wanted to let you know that upcoming blogs will introduce a theme, and articles posted during the week will reflect that theme. All articles will be posted, by theme and week, in the “Resources” section of LRHAdvisoryGroup.com

Now back to this week’s blog.


For the next three weeks, I’m going to focus nonprofits and measuring. There is a part of me that wants to use the word ‘research’ but I think that scares people and the purpose of this blog is to help and not to terrify so let’s call it measuring.

What is Measuring?

Measuring can be as simple as counting the number of primary students in a temporary classroom during a humanitarian emergency, or it can be as involved as trying to determine whether those students will be prepared to move to secondary school once they return home. The first is an ‘output’ measure (how many) and the second is an outcome measure—did change happen. Measuring outputs is much easier than measuring impact, but both have purposes.

Every one of us has measured something at some point in our lives. Maybe it was measuring a length of wood for a door frame. Maybe it was measuring how much your children were growing. Or your weight. Or how many seeds you would need to plant your garden. It’s all measuring, and we’ve all done it. That’s not scary, right? (Unless it’s getting on the scale after Thanksgiving…). We’re using one number that either guides us to a certain conclusion (how many seeds to plant) or contrasts with another number, as in my daughter was 20 inches long when she was born and now she’s 68 inches tall. With no other calculation, we know that she’s taller now than when she was born—there was a change.

We also measure change by asking questions. Let’s say that for the last year, your best friend has trained to run a half-marathon. At that time you asked them, “Why are you doing this?” and they may say:

  • I need to get in shape
  • I have high blood pressure and the doctor told me to exercise
  • I want to lose weight

They have gotten up early, increased their distance and stamina, eaten better, devoted weekends to this effort. successfully finish the marathon and you ask them, “So how do you feel?” and they may say any number of things:

  • I feel AMAZING! I’ve never been in such good shape.
  • My blood pressure is down!
  • I never want to do that again!
  • I am so glad I will have more spare time!

They are reporting results, ideas about what has or will change for them.

Measuring in nonprofits is essentially the same; we are making sure there is a need for what we are doing, looking to make sure we are doing what we set out to do, and/or seeing if what we are doing is making change. We can do this in a number of ways. We can count, we can ask, we can observe, and we can use combinations of those methods to determine needs, keep track of work and, hopefully, show things have changed. Measuring can be done by professional researchers, by staff and by those served by the organization.

Measuring for What Purpose?

In reviewing nonprofit research websites and documents, three categories emerge (I’m sure there are others and there are links between the categories listed below, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on these):

  • Measuring/research on nonprofits themselves, including groups and organizations like GuideStar, Bridgespan and Charity Navigator, that have created metrics to measure nonprofit health;
  • Research for running nonprofit organizations, such as the Stanford Social Innovation Review and Nonprofit Quarterly and the International Society for Third Sector Research; and
  • Research for nonprofit program development, monitoring and evaluation, such as thematically-based academic journals.

This week I’ll post websites and articles that look at research on nonprofits, next week’s blog and articles will be research on running nonprofits and week three’s will be on research for program development, monitoring and evaluation. (See how I moved from measuring to research? Perhaps you didn’t even notice. If you didn’t, my plan is working!)

Happy measuring/research!