Conquering Data: No One Knows Your Program Like You Do

In the second installment of our five-part series, Conquering Data, we’re taking the next step towards doing just that. Last month we focused on dispelling the myth that to make a difference in data and program evaluation you must jump in headfirst. Instead, we asserted that it’s okay to start small. In this month’s blog, we encourage nonprofits to take ownership of their own outcomes rather than leaning on funders to define their results/impact.

When it comes to identifying outcomes, we’ve observed a notable disconnect between nonprofits and the funders that support them. Nonprofits wish to satisfy funders by reporting on what they believe their supporters want to see. Funders on the other hand, take their cues from the nonprofits, assuming what they report on is the most meaningful and valuable data. This communication gap often leads to unrealized goals or objectives. In some instances, this can eventually impair the funder/nonprofit relationship.

Before partnering with us, one of our nonprofit clients who provided arts education to children began tracking Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) scores and their programs’ impact on them. Although they tried to show how their involvement with a group of students was contributing to better SOL scores at the schools those children attended, unfortunately, this wasn’t realistic. The isolated interactions they had with a small subset of the larger student body were not designed to create an increase in SOL scores at a school or school system level.

When we started our engagement with them, we explained the importance of selecting outcome measures with which they have a direct influence and are realistic to achieve given the program services provided. In that case, we recommended that they track and report on social and other interpersonal skills within the subset of children they were serving. This reframing of expectations and objectives allowed for much greater clarity and yielded a more quantifiable determinant of success.

It’s easy to appreciate why nonprofits may believe that funders should dictate what they report on. However, reporting on a certain metric or scale out of fear of sacrificing financial support ends up hurting both parties. Although funders play a critical role in the success of nonprofits and are a great resource for organizational growth, they aren’t necessarily experts on every topic. When setting the expectations for a project or campaign, program leaders must assert themselves as trusted experts who know where they can have the greatest impact as well as their practical capacity to measure it.

If you are interested in further exploring the funder / nonprofit relationship in the program development process, please reach out at and we will be happy to help.