According to the Urban Institute, in 2013, more than 950,000 organizations were classified as 501(c)(3) organizations (i.e., public charities), composing over two-thirds of all registered nonprofits. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of public charities grew 19.5 percent, faster than the growth of all registered nonprofits (2.8 percent). Furthermore, the number of registered public charities also grew faster than other nonprofit subgroups during the decade, including private foundations and 501(c)(4) organizations.
This suggests that there are many people in this country who want to do good work that positively impacts lives. And, I’m sure many desire to have a lasting impact on participants. They want their work to mean something. But, it isn’t enough to simply have a desire for a long term impact. You must plan for it. In this post, I review four indicators that a nonprofit organization is not (yet!) poised to make a lasting impact.
There isn’t a plan for long-term impact.
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but one of the primary reasons that new/new-ish nonprofits aren’t poised for long term impact is because they haven’t planned for it. Instead, they place an emphasis on short term goals. And, listen, I understand why that might happen. Launching an organization and staying on top of the day-to-day tasks is no easy feat, particularly if your organization has a small (but mighty!) staff. Additionally, some non-profits serve individuals with very immediate needs. So, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. However, it’s imperative that you have a firm grasp of what your day-to-day efforts are ultimately leading to. What is the point of all the blood, sweat, and tears? Getting crystal clear on your long-term outcomes will help ensure your short term outcomes are in alignment and aiding you to achieve the ultimate goal. But, first, you need a plan.
Lack of a well-thought out plan for tracking outcomes.
Let’s say that an organization took the first step and created a list of short and long term outcomes for their work. BUT, they a) didn’t create a plan for measuring and tracking progress towards those outcomes or b) created a plan but aren’t implementing it consistently. Either way, that organization is doing itself and (most importantly) its program participants a grave disservice. In order to demonstrate that a program is having an impact, there should be a plan for tracking progress to the goals and that plan should be implemented.
Staff are not using data to inform programmatic decisions.
Instead, they may be relying on their feelings or anecdotal evidence (e.g., a few participants told staff members that they loved last week’s budgeting workshop) to drive programmatic choices. While feelings are excellent gut checks and anecdotal evidence is helpful, those should not be the only things that drive decisions. Instead, programmatic decisions should be driven by what the data are telling you. Nonprofit staff should be asking themselves questions such as:
Given our measures of success and the related data, what parts of our program need to be tweaked, what should be continued and why?
Relying solely on qualitative data to drive funding.
Last week, I wrote about quantitative and qualitative data and how nonprofits need both to effectively communicate their story. Qualitative data (especially compelling stories) is wonderful because it shows the heart behind an organization’s work. And, let’s face it, people are more willing to support your organization’s work when they feel connected to your story. Unfortunately, the human inclination to connect to a story means that some nonprofits place too much emphasis on the feel good stories to compel people to donate. Again, those stories are valuable and valid but as a nonprofit grows, it will become increasingly more important to have funding that is both consistent and more considerable than what you might raise through crowd-sourcing. Which may then lead an organization to apply for funding from larger entities such as corporations, foundations, the government, and even private donors.
When applying for funding, nonprofits need to come prepared with quantitative data. Gone are the days where money was awarded simply because of an awesome story. Rather, funders have become much more discretionary with their money. When nonprofits are unable to provide quantitative data (which oftentimes shows evidence of long-term impact), funders are skeptical because they do not have clear insight into whether it’s worth the investment. Please do not hurt your chances of receiving needed funding because you’re painting a partial picture of your organization’s work.
Do any of these indicators resonate with you? If so, never fear! You can change course. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series that provides you with tips for making sure your nonprofit is poised for long term impact!