Non-Profit Impact: From Good Deeds to Good Evidence

Funding is a perennial concern in the non-profit world, and while there are many factors that can influence funding opportunities, there is usually a common thread amongst organizations and it is the lack of data to help demonstrate the effectiveness of their actions.

When seeking donations either from foundations or private donors, it matters to the decision-makers to make sure their dollars will not only be spent towards a good cause, but that the use of the funds is both efficient and effective. And while we can gather stories and anecdotal evidence, and those have immense value in communicating the good work of an organization, numbers and qualitative data will tell donors how far their dollars go in clear and specific terms.

Let’s start with quantitative data.

One simple, but often overlooked way of collecting relevant data is to simply record well-defined events, such as counting the number of people that participate of a program-cycle. For example, if you run a series of educational workshops you can track the number of attendants and the number of people who complete the series.

Now we also need to get a little deeper into the data than just attendance numbers. To achieve that, we can create registration forms that allows us to collect basic demographic data (age, gender, geography) and surveys with close-ended questions either face-to-face, as telephone interviews, questionnaires, etc. Using the previous example, we could ask participants if they found the information useful (yes/no) or if they would change x, y or z based on what they learned (yes/no/maybe).

Of course in all cases, it is key to understand what type of information will be of value to you (data that will help you improve your programs, inform outreach efforts, etc.) and which will be of value to potential donors (who you serve and how well).

What about qualitative data?

Qualitative data has special value for investigating complex and sensitive issues that can help us understand how certain groups of people (be wary of generalizations here) think about specific topics, and it relies on in-depth interviewing. For example, if you are interested in how people view topics like God and religion, human sexuality, the death penalty, gun control, and so on, you would be hard-pressed to develop a quantitative methodology that would do anything more than summarize a few key positions on these issues. It is key to understand that qualitative data is exploratory and not confirmatory as quantitative data.

In order to obtain qualitative data, we may involve ourselves in direct observation over a period of time observing certain sampled situations or people rather than trying to become immersed in the entire context. For instance, one might observe child-mother interactions under specific circumstances in a specific setting looking especially for nonverbal cues being used. We can also conduct unstructured interviews that allow for the interviewer to move the conversation in the direction of interest that comes up, which allows for more in-depth exploration of a topic. We can also conduct case studies, focusing on a specific subject or context.

A healthy mix of both, can strengthen your organizations case for funding, encourage stakeholder involvement, and help you find ways to improve the impact of the great things you are already doing in your community.