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Afraid Your Data Isn't Good Enough? It's Probably Not You. It's The System.

“How many donors should I have on my mailing list?”
“Did our students meet their growth targets for this school year?”
“Are the goals for my organization truly long term?”

As data analysts, these are the types of questions we get all of the time and, frankly, we don’t have all of the answers. We, outsiders to the inner workings of an organization, don’t have the full context of the scope of the work. What we can do is teach those in the social sector how to work with the data to create realistic goals for their organizations. 


This conversation is one that brings a lot of excitement and energy but also often of anxiety and apprehension. Where some are excited to create goals for the future based on their current level of success, others become mired in worry. They are anxious that their goals aren’t lofty enough or their accomplishments aren’t worthy of sharing with funders, donors, supervisors, or other stakeholders.  Last year, a nonprofit professional shared a concern that her organization "only" helped support 60 students through school and wasn't sure if this was enough of an impact for funders.

Within the social sector, what is considered "good enough" by external parties is often unclear. Although providing 60 students with financial assistance is certainly a notable accomplishment, without context it can be difficult to determine if it’s “good enough.”  As we’ve helped professionals in the social sector shape their goals and adopt strategic evaluation plans, we have found that many struggle—consciously or unconsciously—with a fear of potential results. We can empathize with fear of negative feedback, especially in the social sector, which is dominated by individuals giving their all to causes for which they care deeply.

After spending the last few years working with nonprofit professionals, we at Evaluate for Change, an organization that teaches social sector professionals how to implement sound data practices, began to ask what systemic factors contribute to this fear.

In recent years there has been a sector-wide push for increased accountability motivated by public scandals of nonprofit mismanagement and constrained resources resulting from decreases in government funding. In a 2013 survey from the Urban Institute, nearly 40 percent of nonprofits reported a decline in local and state government funding, and 50percent experienced a cut in federal funds. Considering the decline in resources and the increase in skepticism, funders want to ensure their dollars are being spent effectively. This push towards accountability was solidified in 1993 with the enactment of the Government Performance and Results Act, which requires agencies receiving federal funds to adopt a strategic plan along with performance goals to be established and tracked by the agency.

A 2014 report from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations states, “Measurement is becoming a prominent driver in the social sector, as funders want to know exactly how their money is being used.” Many funders, even those without federal dollars, followed suit and began requiring that nonprofits report their incomes. When every dollar matters, funders want to ensure that their money is being spent on community programs creating impact and want to be certain of their investments. This is certainly a sensible approach. There appears, however, to be a lack of consensus among funders as to what constitutes sufficient impact.

The anxiety the professionals we work experience is understandable, because nonprofit leaders are forced to reconcile their own goals and hopes for their organizations with those of outside stakeholders. Leaders might decide that the metrics imposed on them by other organizations, especially those tied to funding, may supersede goals more fitting to the organization. Lack of clarity about what demonstrating sufficient impact means or varying definitions from different funders of what constitutes impact is undoubtedly worrisom.

For example, where one funder might consider a 50 percent job placement rate sufficient, another might expect 80 percent.  Funders may also look at different metrics entirely: one funder might want to know how well your organization places chronically unemployed people. Another might want to know how well your organization fights under-employment.

No wonder nonprofits have a hard time figuring out if their data is good enough, and, subsequently, if their programs will be supported! Reconciling the needs of funders with an organization’s internal strategic goals can be a challenge. Not reconciling these needs appropriately can also result in organizational discord. When goals serve multiple and possibly differing entities, it can be challenging to rally and direct staff toward the goals they need to target.

Not meeting these varying benchmarks can feel punishing and disorienting. In order to make this process feel less dizzying, an organization should be strong in its own evaluation priorities. The first step is to empower the organization to see the value in prioritizing the activity. The organization’s culture should dictate the choices it makes, including exercising the practice of evaluation. Developing a culture of evaluation based on an internal sense of benchmarks should be the primary evaluation goals driving the organization. Staff members will feel more in control than constantly basing their expectations on ever-changing, externally imposed benchmarks.

So what can be done to ease the anxiety of many nonprofit leaders? First, funders should be extremely clear about their expectations of what constitutes impact. When nonprofit staff are unclear about whether or not the outcome of their evaluation will affect their funding, it understandably makes them fearful and causes them to wonder perpetually if their data meets their funders' standards. Second, funders should learn from the nonprofit's perspective. Ask such questions as “What are the goals of this organization?” What is the ideal way to measure funding for this organization?” “What other funders might this organization need to respond to other data requests?”

By creating an open dialogue and understanding how evaluation outcomes affect all parties, nonprofit leaders and funders can establish mutually beneficial goals without fear or trepidation.


Jessica Zulawski


Amanda Babine


The preceding is a guest post by Jessica Zulawski, senior evaluation trainer, and Amanda Babine, director, of Evaluate for Change. Evaluate for Change, @Evaluate4change, is dedicated to shifting the social sector toward a more data-driven and results-oriented industry, all while remembering people are more than just numbers.

Topics: Data Donors Social Sector Data