Your organization is working toward change in the world and believes it is making a real difference. But how do you measure such things? What kinds of technology systems can you use to track them?
No organization finds these questions trivial, but this challenge is particularly difficult for those with outcomes that can’t be summarized from a set of data about clients or constituents—for example, what if you’re tracking advocacy progress, environmental quality measures, or the transparency of the nonprofit sector? What kinds of software are available to track such big-picture outcomes?
Organizations of all sizes are attempting to develop systems that provide comprehensive snapshots of their performance in these areas. Often, they find themselves hunting for a software system that simplifies how they collect, analyze, and report on data—ideally, one that can be had at a reasonable price and that lots of other organizations are already using.
“We wanted to find out what software systems exist and what some of the largest and most-well known organizations are using.”
At Idealware, we wanted to find out what software systems exist and what some of the largest and most-well known organizations are using. As part of a larger research project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we reached out to a number of those nonprofits for initial conversations, and then spoke in more detail to six that we felt we could learn from, including Mercy Corps, Habitat for Humanity International, GuideStar, the United Nations Foundation, DonorsChoose.org, and the Environmental Defense Fund.
We asked about their efforts in this complex area and collected insights that we think will serve the whole sector. What we found may surprise some people.
While a number of client management systems allow organizations to view person-level data that can be aggregated to track some outcomes (to learn more about such software, read our free recent Consumers Guide to Case Management Systems), we didn’t find any compelling market of software to track non-client-specific outcomes such as those mentioned above at a high level. While some existing systems can be adapted for the purpose of broad outcomes management—most notably DevResults (devresults.com)—none of the nine large nonprofits we initially interviewed was using an off-the-shelf software solution for outcomes management.
“We asked about their efforts in this complex area and collected insights that we think will serve the whole sector. What we found may surprise some people.”
A few had developed their own custom-built systems, however. About half were using Microsoft Excel as a core part of their outcomes management solution. Most felt that the technology they had in place met basic needs, but none felt it had completely solved the problem of tracking outcomes. All but one organization had big hopes for a future system that could more seamlessly move data from the point of its creation to a compelling dashboard.
What does this mean for organizations that don’t have dozens of staff or hundreds of thousands of dollars to devote to this issue? Is there no hope? In fact, we consider this good news.
Huge organizations have found that a tool nearly every organization already has installed—Microsoft Excel—is a compelling solution to their outcomes management needs. Fundamentally, we discovered that this issue of tracking summary outcomes if you don’t also need to track individual clients is as much or more of a strategy problem than a technology one.
Want to read more about our findings and how the individual large organizations we spoke to approach outcomes management? We’ve published our new report, Technologies and Practices for Managing Outcomes: Lessons from Large Nonprofits, which includes case studies of the six organizations and their solutions, for free on our website. Download it to learn more.
Laura Quinn is Director of Partnerships and Knowledge for Idealware, a a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides thoroughly researched, impartial, and accessible resources about software to help nonprofits make smart software decisions. Be sure to follow their work on Twitter at @Idealware.