Sorry, wrong way.” Photo: Tadekk

September 18, 2019; San Diego Magazine

“We live in a culture that is crazy about numbers…”
“The very ancient and dominant belief of Western culture is that numbers are what is real…”
“We increasingly depend on numbers to gauge how we are doing on virtually everything.”

These may very well have been quotes from Jennifer Davies’ article in San Diego Magazine called “How Nonprofits Are Crunched for Data.” But that’s not the case; in fact, they come from Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, writing in the Journal of Performance Management 20 years ago.

The focus of the San Diego Magazine report is on the quantity of data nonprofit organizations must collect to prove that what they do actually has an impact. While many of the nonprofits quoted in the article agree that data collection is important, they are also honest in saying that sometimes the data collection costs almost as much as the program being measured. This echoes comments in a more recent NPQ newswire about data potentially getting in the way.

In what amounts to a virtual ad for the company, the article also quotes several people from TableCloth, an analytics platform built for “impact investors, private equity firms and large foundations.” Despite this statement, TableCloth apparently has had some positive impact offering predetermined rubrics for data measurement, and tools to capture numbers in a coherent fashion online.

Elenore Garton, cofounder and chief impact officer, is quoted as saying that until very recently, maybe three or four years ago, nonprofits only measured information like the number of people served (outputs)—but today, it’s all about measuring impact (outcomes). Aside from the fact that Garton needs to read up on her history of the nonprofit sector, she is right in saying that funders have embraced this concept far more than many nonprofits.

Nancy Jamison, president and CEO of the local San Diego Grantmakers’ association, says that if a funder has a choice between two nonprofits doing the same thing, “it is the funder’s responsibility to fund the one that will impact more lives.” Really? Maybe the smaller organization has a better idea, and it just needs to be funded to develop that new model.

So, we return to the article by Wheatley and Keller-Rogers, who asked some key questions more than two decades ago about data collection. Although their article focused on measures of success in the workplace, a few questions they ask relate to the comments in Davies’ article:

  • Who gets to create the measures? Is it the nonprofit organization, the donor, or the researcher? Or should the people being impacted by the programs be in on it?
  • Are we designing measures that are too rigid? Are they proving what we already believe, or will they give us ways of seeing things in new ways, and looking through different lenses?

It is encouraging that one of the TableCloth people who were quoted, Jared Aacker, says that ultimately nonprofits cannot rely on numbers alone. We need to connect with a funder’s heart, not just their head. Aacker calls it “D ’n’ A,” or data and anecdotes. Knock them out with the statistical proof of your impact through the data, and then warm the cockles of their hear with a story.

Although, hang on. Is the only reason we are collecting data to be able to share it with a funder? In its latest edition of the magazine, NPQ addressed the problems in the ways nonprofits structure their own accountability away from those meant to benefit and toward those who fund us. This is called a “muted market,” and it is antithetical to true engagement. Don’t get us wrong, data is indeed valuable—but only if you get to the questions that need to be asked.—Rob Meiksins