5 steps to measure your mission

Do you know how well your nonprofit is doing to meet its mission? Is your team able to reflect on ways to improve at meeting your mission? Nonprofits that make their missions measurable can build the tools to improve their effectiveness.

Imagine the difference for our communities if every nonprofit could improve its performance at meeting its mission. Based on nonprofit Theory of Change, here are five steps nonprofits can take to prepare to improve mission performance, starting with the two foundational mission commitments:

1. Define who the nonprofit commits to engage.

Who do we live and die for? Who is our target population? This can be:

  • Individuals, for example: parents of color with school-age children in Boston
  • Organizations, for example: environmental nonprofits in Vermont
  • A community, for example: the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago

Then you can define key measurable, observable characteristics of your target population:

  • Demographics: For individuals, where are they? How old are they/their children? For organizations, how big are they or what kinds of missions do they have? For communities, what are the boundary lines?
  • Assets or strengths: What are they good at? What assets do they bring to the table?
  • Challenges: What challenges do they bring to the process. What help do they need from you?

2. Agree to what end the nonprofit commits to engage them.

There are three kinds of nonprofit missions, each a different way to answer the question “To what end?”

Some nonprofits are accountable to provide basic needs: food, shelter, safety, or clothing; for example a food pantry or the Red Cross. Basic needs are those without which one cannot live, the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Some nonprofits are accountable to deliver a specific quality service, for example a liberal arts education, health care, ballet performance, or museum experience.

Some nonprofits commit to help participants climb an outcomes ladder. Outcomes are meaningful, intentional, sustained changes in people’s lives. Here is an example showing how a child learns to read:

  • Initial outcomes include inside changes: New knowledge and skills, like learning the alphabet and understanding phonics and sight words, and changed values and attitudes like taking an interest in reading
  • Intermediate outcomes include behaviors and milestones, such as reading an early reader out loud and reading at a third grade level with comprehension. Intermediate outcomes can only grow if the necessary initial outcomes have first developed
  • Long-term outcomes are the changes in life status that result from sustaining intermediate outcomes over time, in this case reading for knowledge and pleasure.

All three kinds of missions are uniquely valuable to deliver public benefit. Each kind of mission implies a different definition of success. Each kind of nonprofit mission can be made measurable by selecting indicators that tell if the accountability has been met.

All nonprofits can be clear, focused, and agreed on their definition of “Who?” and “To what end?” These two measures are the bookends of nonprofit missions and nonprofit performance management.

3. Codify the nonprofit’s program strategy and activities.

What strategies and activities are necessary to help your target population reach your committed destination above in #2? What quantity, quality, and duration of program activities, requirements, and relationships are logically necessary to engage your participants in their unique context and help them progress along the path you believe is necessary to reach the final destination in your mission?

Once your nonprofit has mapped out its theory of change, it can measure participant attendance and progress at each key step along the journey.

4. Define indicators and select measurement tools.

Indicators are measurable data that tell whether individual participants have received the basic needs or quality service commitment, or have achieved success on a priority outcome. After indicators are defined, a nonprofit can select or develop questions and a realistic plan to gather that data. For example, who will gather it, how, and when? Where will the data be stored? How will the data be compiled and presented?

By taking these steps, you design a clear pathway for participants to reach the intended mission destination. Depending on your nonprofit’s specific mission commitments and pathway, here are the kinds of data sets nonprofits need to manage and improve their performance on mission, which tell if a participant:

  • meets criteria for target population.
  • has completed sufficient program dosage needed to receive basic needs or quality services or achieve outcomes.
  • has completed all the program requirements.
  • has met basic needs or quality standards.
  • has achieved initial outcomes, intermediate outcomes, and long-term outcomes.

The goal of data analysis is to answer the question, “How many of our target population reached our final mission destination?” And for the ones who did not reach the desired destination, “Where did we lose them? How can we intervene sooner and do better next time?”

5. Design a plan to learn from the data and use it to inform improvement.

You want to gather data about each individual participant’s progress down your nonprofit’s pathway. This empowers front-line staff to use real-time participant data to make optimal daily decisions to help them. This process is called tactical data use.

At the same time, you want to compile data about groups of participants’ progress, so that program leadership can identify patterns of success or lagging behind, to make needed program adjustments and provide support to staff.

Finally, your organization’s management and board of directors can use compiled data to make better decisions about raising and allocating resources, and about staffing, partnerships and program strategy. This process is called strategic data use. Together they become a powerful engine for organization-wide learning and improvement, in the hands of leadership and staff committed to mission effectiveness.


This approach is an all-hands-on-deck, relentless pursuit to improve participant outcomes, which requires that a nonprofit make changes in the way it manages its operations. Any nonprofit can clarify its mission commitments and theory of change and ultimately make it measurable.

Ellen Bass