There are so many ways to approach research on programs in nonprofits. One way is with excitement; another is with dread, and then there are all the points in-between. We may be told by a grantor that evaluation is a mandatory component of the grant—hopefully, there are funds in the grant for that very purpose. However, I think there is something much more fundamental at play in nonprofit research: we need to know if what we are doing is contributing to positive change. If it is, we can keep doing it. If not, we need to make changes until we get it right.


What Do We Want to Know?

In order to keep research as non-threatening as possible, let’s start with the question, “What is important for us to know based on our mission and how we do the work?” and there are as many answers as there are organizations.

If you are working at a substance abuse treatment center, you might want to know how many of the people completing your program are substance-free and for how long. Was there a specific part of the program that impacted their decision to stop using, or was it the support from others in the program that made the difference? If you don’t know the answers, you may be investing in work that is less helpful when resources could be directed to the components that create impact.

There are a huge number of measuring/research resources available for nonprofits, focusing on everything from paradigms (e.g., feminist, postmodern) to methodologies to sampling to data collection, analysis and reporting results. Since this is a blog (short), and although I have done research I would not consider myself a researcher (Manager, yes. Researcher, no), I’ll focus on two results-oriented ideas: outputs and outcomes.


Outputs and Outcomes

Outputs are things that are done by the organization, like: How many people did our organization serve last year? What was the gender breakdown? How many people completed the program? In contrast, outcomes are the changes the organization was created to produce. How many people remained substance-free for how long after completing the program? Both are important, both serve a purpose.

Outputs are much easier to measure. We can count how many people come through the door, we can ask their gender, and we can easily determine who has gone through to completion. The much harder part is getting information on longer-term results, the changes a person makes based on participation in your program, and on what specifically helped and what didn’t. The answers to these questions are your outcomes, your program’s impact on the lives of those served. Planning ahead is the key. Building data collection mechanisms into daily work can lessen the research fear factor. Regular reporting of outcomes and outputs to staff can build morale and provide information on where programs need strengthening or change.

This is a thin slice of measuring programs in nonprofits. This coming week, resources will include a more in-depth explanation of outputs/outcomes, new ways of data-gathering, and ideas for peer-reviewed research on specific thematic areas. Looking at how others measure can help you determine how to move forward. A quote attributed to Picasso reads, ‘Good artists borrow; great artists steal.’ Hopefully the resources provided will allow you to ‘steal’ from the best!