Activities Versus Success

It is easy to measure activities.  It is easy to count the number of clients served, the dollars spent, and the donors who attended an event or were cultivated.  Those numbers only tell you that your nonprofit was busy.  If the numbers are positive they tell you that your nonprofit is healthy.  However, from those numbers it is impossible to know how long your nonprofit will remain healthy.

If all of the measures of activity go up 10% next week, all you know is that your nonprofit is busier.  Hopefully your nonprofit is stronger, more agile, more successful, and in a stronger competitive position but those measures are unable to validate your hope.  It is doubtful that this time next year the activity measures will matter.  What will matter is whether your nonprofit’s sustainability becomes higher or lower than it is today.

What are the measures that will tell you that your nonprofit’s sustainability has improved?

More clients served is an activity that sounds great.  It might lead to more clients achieving success.  However, donors and others want compelling evidence of increased success.  The compelling evidence is statistics that demonstrate that the number of clients achieving success is proportional to or greater than past success.

Success for a nonprofit is easy to measure.  Success comes when the outcome promised by the mission statement happens.  Since nonprofits exist to solve an important societal problem, fulfilling one of the promises of the mission statement is the only success measure that matters.

The other important measures tell you that your nonprofit is reaching milestones that will lead to success.  Some of the more important milestones are:

Donor Engagement

New Donors – Number of donors increases every year

Donor Retention – Average length of time a donor provides support for your nonprofit increases every year

Donor Generosity – Average gift size from donors increases each year

Client Engagement

New Clients – Number of new clients entering the programing each year increases faster than the local population growth

Client Retention – Average length of time a client remains a client increases every year

Results – Number of clients who achieve the desired results increases faster than the growth in new clients each year

Community Engagement

Community Support – Number of referrals, volunteers, and advocates increases each year

Diversity – Client and supporter diversity matches the diversity of your community

Take a moment and add to the preceding list the donor, client, and community engagement measures that are unique to your nonprofit or provide your nonprofit with a strategic or competitive advantage.  Now set goals for each of the milestone.

Next Step:

Determine how to measure your nonprofit’s outcomes and milestones in ways that resonate with your supporters and that demonstrate the relevance of your nonprofit to your community’s needs

Collaborate with the board on setting long-term goals (more than three years) for the outcomes, results, and milestones

Report only the outcomes, results, and milestones to the board

Let the board committees (finance, fundraising, and programing) report on the activities and recommend changes

Remind that board that it is engaging in micromanagement when it talks about activities

As the nonprofit executive, it remains important for you and your senior staff to monitor activities.  The activities tell you that your staff is doing the right things.  The milestones, results, and outcomes tell you that your staff is being effective.  Your donors, clients, and community care deeply about your nonprofit’s effectiveness.  You need to focus on both activities and effectiveness.

Every nonprofit board should monitor activities, it is the only way the board will know if the nonprofit is healthy.  However, the board should limit its discussion of activities to defining the change in activities that will indicate improving sustainability.

Take It Further:

Make achieving milestones and success measures the staff’s first priority rather than measuring the activities the staff engaged in or completed


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