The Trick to Defining Success in the Social Sector
For Funders and Nonprofits
January 23, 2024
Deciding How to Define Success is Hard!
In 20+ years of working with social sector partners, I’ve never met a single person who does not really, really want there to be a single number – like “profit” – that nonprofits can use as a simple, clear indicator of success.
Because we know using evidence-based programming is desirable, maybe scientific methods where success is defined by statistically significant findings of (ideally long-term) benefits will get us there.
But, nonprofit work isn’t just hard, and it doesn’t just have a lot of moving pieces: the work happens in the complexity of a constant flow of unpredictable factors that affects the strategy, timeline, and ultimate impact.
The scientific methods for formal program evaluation involve very specific rules for rigorous experimental design, objectivity, and statistical testing. Even simple scientific methods are extremely hard put into place within the complexity of running a nonprofit day-to-day.
An Emerging Vision for the Social Sector
A vision for the social sector has emerged to adequately resource nonprofits so they can be responsive to clients’ changing needs, as well as to create authentic partnerships between nonprofits and funders, focused on generating meaningful, community change.
This audacious goal requires a straightforward and uncomplicated way for local nonprofits and their funders to collaboratively track and use impact.
The Basic Indicators of Success
There are three key definitions of success which can be reasonably, meaningfully, and repeatedly measured by local nonprofits.
- The amount of benefit clients got from programming, e.g., preschoolers got intended skills by the end of the program
- Clients plan to use what they got in the future, e.g., preschoolers are going on to elementary school
- Clients were satisfied with programming, e.g., the preschool is a place parents want to send their toddlers
The Trick for Funders
Nonprofits are focused on success for individuals, while funders are often focused on success for communities.
Foundations successfully partner with nonprofits when the immediate benefits for individual (e.g., the skills learned in preschool that result in success in school) are are aligned with the foundation’s vision for community change (e.g., reducing poverty).
When nonprofits use programming that have research behind them that has already shown they result in long-term change for people (e.g., high-quality preschool has been shown to have long-term benefits like being more likely to hold a job and have higher earnings by age 40).
This trick means neither nonprofits nor funders need to re-prove programming results in people achieving long-term change; that’s already been done by the program evaluation scientists. It’s enough just to deliver the programming and then to show nonprofits were successful in delivering the programming.
The ImpactStory™ Resource Library has lots of research reports showing long-term change – just look under Programming that Works!
Thank you for all your tireless work!
Your ImpactStory™ Coach
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Partnerships for Strategic Impact®
At Partnerships for Strategic Impact®, I have all the tools to build out the structures and strategies you need for tracking and using impact. I train social sector staff in how to use these tools, in how to analyze data, in how to make action steps for change, and how to tell powerful impact stories. My goal is your sustainability: I provide just the right amount of coaching and ongoing support to ensure success.
This is within reach. It’s not harder than managing your budget. Plus, you, your funders, and the people you serve deserve to know more about the value your organization delivers.
If you’re reading this, then you’re already part of my network. Schedule some time on my calendar. There’s no sales pitch and no obligation. Just curiosity and answering your questions. I am the seasoned program-evaluation, program-development, data-storytelling partner you need, right in your back pocket. I am here to bring order to the process of figuring out how to track and use your impact story.
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