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By: Steve Zimmerman

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed to be undecided about them,” said Laurence Peter. Sometimes nonprofit “impact” can feel like one of these complex issues.

Nonprofit sustainability lies in making ongoing strategic decisions that account for both mission impact and financial viability. We’ve written about using the Matrix Map to illustrate how an organization’s programs work together to meet this dual bottom line. But coming to a shared understanding of “impact” is difficult, and program impact assessment requires candid conversations that happen too rarely but can be very powerful.

In this article we untangle — or unpack — the various strands of meaning that combine into impact. In particular, it’s useful to distinguish between program impact assessment and program evaluation. Program evaluation typically examines the degree to which identified outcomes were achieved as a result of a programmatic effort. When an organization looks at impact, it needs to look at relative impact (compared to other programs), and consider that different programs have different kinds of impact.

To capture these different lenses, we suggest a blend of criteria to assess mission impact. Start with these two criteria that address the intention and the implementation of the program:

  • Contribution to intended impact: Every program of an organization has value, but not every program contributes in the same level to the organization’s intended impact. By focusing on intended impact, a more specific statement that complements the mission, leaders can have a discussion about the design of a program and whether it is currently configured in a way that maximizes the desired impact of the organization.
  • Excellence in execution: This aspect of impact is a direct challenge to the traditional notion of nonprofit strategy wherein leaders assumed that if a program was needed and mission aligned, the organization should maintain it. We know that organizations are simply better at executing on some programs compared to others. Today, with a new focus on impact, it isn’t enough for a program to be aligned; the nonprofit has to be doing it well.

While every program should be assessed on the above criteria, additional criteria should be chosen to highlight the strategic issue that an organization is facing. Choose two more criteria to round out the definition of impact. Some criteria to consider are:

  • Scale: For some organizations the extent of their reach is a critical element of their impact. Not every program is designed to reach a large number of people, but this criteria may be important if the organization has active strategic questions about the scale of its programs.
  • Depth: How deeply engaged are constituents in the organization’s current programs? Depth can refer to the relative length of participant’s engagement, the intensity of a program’s design and the degree of transformation experienced by clients or participants.
  • Significant unmet need: Some organizations may find they are the only provider of a certain service in their community, while for other programs, constituents have numerous alternatives.  Even with alternatives, there may not be enough supply in your community to meet the need.  For example, a community may have four homeless shelters, but still not enough beds for all the homeless in any given night. Significant unmet need aims to capture the market dynamics the organization faces.
  • Community building: Nonprofits deliver more than services; they also advocate for a particular issue, raise awareness and engage the community about an issue. Community building refers to whether the program contributes to the movement and community in which the organization is embedded.
  • Leverage: Programs don’t operate on their own, but within the greater system of the organizations. Leverage tries to understand the impact of using this program to strengthen important partnerships and relationships both inside and outside the organization.

The four criteria chosen will paint a fuller picture of mission impact.  To make it as specific and relevant as possible to the organization’s strategic issue, tailor the question around each criteria. For example:

  • A community child care center might ask around community building: “To what extent, as it’s currently executed, does this program meaningfully connect the current families, alumni and community around our school?” or
  • A food bank may ask around scale: “To what extent, as it’s currently executed, does this program reach the breadth of diverse client and donor families in our community?”

Untangling the various threads that lie within impact also allows program directors to have a clearer sense of the kind of impact their programs are trying to achieve, and for what kinds of impact their programs are valued.

Given how much we value and strive for impact, the different elements of impact and the degree to which we achieve them is remarkably little discussed. A conversation about impact among senior managers and board members can be a powerful conversation as part or outside the Matrix Map process. These discussions help increase understanding, shatter myths and change perceptions. It also adds rigor to an organization’s process in answering the question of where is the best use for limited resources ultimately leading to increased impact.

Download our program impact assessment template below: