A nonprofit’s social impact can be measured by how much difference the agency makes, and the changes it creates in the communities it serves. Evaluating impact often seems a daunting task, however. There is no single, perfect solution – nonprofits must choose from a number of approaches and use a variety of tools.

In this guide we’ll look at the approaches to nonprofit social impact evaluation, and share some tools for getting started. To learn more about social impact evaluation for nonprofits, or to discover ABCD solutions for your organization, don’t hesitate to reach out to us today.

Why impact evaluation is important for nonprofits

Around the globe, “impact evaluation” is a hot topic for nonprofits. Having the right intentions simply is not enough any more. Social good agencies need to demonstrate results, and they need data-backed evidence to support their efforts. This is important for not only the organization as a whole, but also for their donors or funders.

Defining and measuring social impact presents a challenge, however. It involves assessing the work you do, and identifying the results that flow from it. The emphasis is on outcomes rather than “outputs”, and for nonprofits this requires measuring complex concepts. It might be feelings of self-esteem, overall well-being, or opinions about individual programs.

This is where nonprofits look to multiple approaches to social impact evaluation, but it does become an ongoing process. Case management software and tools for program evaluation help, although you still have to expect time for training staff and fine-tuning your systems. As this happens, evaluation via quality data analytics and communication of discoveries is how you begin defining your social impact. Let’s look now at the long journey to accomplishing this, to the approaches in use today for nonprofit social impact evaluation. 

Getting started: techniques to evaluate for social impact

“Social impact” in itself can be a vague and often misleading term. However, one way it’s put into perspective is with Theory of Change. This theory looks to identify how and why a desirable result occurs under different conditions. 

You can take multiple approaches to build a Theory of Change model and apply them to businesses, projects, or individual programs. For the purposes of this post, let’s define the most important elements of the model as follows: inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact. With these dimensions, you can answer a number of questions for a nonprofit.

  • Who is the target audience, and what results are you looking for? 
  • What is the time period, and what activities, techniques, and resources will this involve?
  • How and where will you accomplish your work, and why do you believe you will succeed?

To answer these questions, let’s return to our Theory of Change model for determining social impact for a non-profit organization.

the word "change" written in orange neaon lights on dark background

Defining inputs and activities 

The first, most basic step is to determine inputs. An input is simply any supply of resources (financial, intellectual, departmental, etc) that your agency has for itself or its programs. To get a better idea of inputs, start asking what resources you have available for individual activities. 

Activities are the backbone of nonprofits, the tangible actions in the communities they aim to help. They might be for example in peer support groups, community outreach, mentoring programs, or fundraising events. 

To understand how well these activities are working, you can look to the inputs and how well they are achieving desirable outcomes. Ultimately, what you’re trying to prove is that your key activities not only justify the inputs, they truly help achieve the desired impact — changes and improvements to the quality of life in the communities you serve. 

Outputs versus outcomes

Next, think of outputs essentially as the results of the nonprofit’s activities. Keep in mind this not about overall effectiveness. Outputs are better understood as building blocks in your approach to help the communities you serve. Are your programs designed around the needs of your community? Do you have the best tools and resources for your activities? This is where you’ll want to determine which outputs are most useful for reaching your desired impact.

Then there are outcomes, which look closer at changes over time. These changes include things like noticeable benefits, advances in education, and in general any effects that can be attributed to your efforts. To define these, you have to try to measure the difference between the current situation compared to what it might have been if no intervention had occurred. This is where it becomes problematic, as there is no reliable way to assert what “might have been”. Rather, you have to look to how your programs contribute to specific changes.

Keep in mind when measuring outcomes that it’s easier to focus on behavioral changes. Changes in attitude or mental state (e.g. self-esteem) are much more difficult to objectively measure and demonstrate. To begin, you may have an easier time focusing on tangible results, like improved performance,  shifts in aptitude, or other benefits that contribute to your nonprofit’s social impact. Over time, as your organization builds capacity for evaluative thinking, you will find ways to measure and interpret more subtle changes as well. 

Outcomes versus social impact

Now, it’s important to note that some practitioners don’t distinguish between “outcomes” and “social impact”. If looking to improve your measurements, however, many experts have defined them differently. These definitions are as follows:

  • Outcomes: These refer to short-term, more immediate changes observed in clients, learners, participants, etc. and to which the nonprofit’s activities or  programs meaningfully contribute.
  • Impact: These are changes much broader in scope, ones you can measure as a result of program outcomes across the wider community, organization, society or environment as a whole.

a small table charting outcomes and impact for nonprofits

Determine key performance indicators (KPIs) for outputs, outcomes, and impact

Another step to evaluating your overall social impact is to choose key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure over time. With impact measurement, these KPIs will identify whether or not something has happened and to what extent.

Keep in mind, these indicators will be specific to the context of your individual project. What works for similar nonprofits might not work as well for yours, but at the very least you should try to define KPIs for indicators for outputs, outcomes, and impact.

  • Output indicators — Often tangible (and numerical), output indicators entail specific details about delivering outputs, where these are delivered, and the resulting level of satisfaction from these efforts.
  • Outcome indicators — These are measurable, specific pieces of data to track the difference your activities are creating. Indicators should involve both quantitative and qualitative data, combining measures for subjective and objective evaluation. 
  • Impact indicators — The most difficult to objectively measure, these indicators account for the change that would have occurred if your nonprofit had not intervened. They also look at the work of other organizations in comparison. 

Regularly evaluate, assess, and prioritize indicators

As your nonprofit makes progress, it’s important to regularly evaluate, assess, and prioritize indicators. While at the start, there might be a lot of indicators the nonprofit wants to focus on, along the way the agency will need to review consistently and try to key in on the most useful ones. To do this, ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Are the indicators you’re focusing on essential for your work?
  2. Do these indicators unlock other outcomes?
  3. Are they helping you attract more donors or to better report on your impact?

What you discover will be crucial to the development of your programs and your work as a whole. Discovers can reveal how to shape interviews, focus groups, surveys and studies. More importantly, sharing discoveries along the way also serves as a valuable way to report on your social impact with the wider community, other nonprofits, and more potential donors.

spalsh of water on a reflective pool

Make the most of your data

Following a Theory of Change model and addressing all of the above is a long, arduous process. Nonetheless, in the end, your nonprofit will have a wealth of data to learn from and display. How you go about this, however, will require finding the right tools and resources for data analytics and management. 

This is where ABCD (A Better Database Community) can assist. At ABCD, our mission is to empower nonprofits with simple yet powerful software for data management. Flexible and open-source, ABCD solutions simplify case management, program evaluation, and outcome tracking. There are also no additional license or user costs, and security is ensured as all data lives on a server which you designate.