You CAN Capture Lightning in a Bottle: Meaningful Strategic Impact Measurement

The metrics that matter most are those that tell you if your strategy is helping you meet your organization’s overall goals. Yet, measuring that impact is complex and complicated with lots of tools, numbers, and moving targets to wrangle. I want organizations to get control of the powerful lightning that is strategic measurement.

While I’ll talk about meaningful strategic measurement in terms of communications strategy, these tips can be adapted to your organizations’ social media, content, program, campaign, and even fundraising strategies.

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Which metrics matter?

A meaningful metric is one that you understand and that can be consistently collected. It will inform your approach, helping you understand whether what you’re doing—and how you’re doing it—is working.

Most importantly, what you measure should help you evaluate whether a particular strategy is effective, and how you might improve it. Your communications strategy exists to help audiences discover your organization and your work, participate in your programs and services, learn from the content you offer, and take action on issues.

So first, choose what metrics matter to your strategic goals and mission, and don’t worry about everything else. This focus will help you scale your measurement efforts and allocate your resources.

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Meaningful measurement is people-based

If you’re measuring what really matters, you’re measuring results that are people-based. It’s not about the money—it’s about the impact you have on your community. That’s what being mission-based is all about. Therefore, focus on measurements that help you understand the quality of your audience experience.

To do this effectively, segment your audience. You can’t go after everyone equally. The general public is not an audience. It’s too large and too nebulous to engage and measure.

Once you’ve defined your audience segments, you can study them to better understand them. With this understanding, you can imagine your audience’s experiences, their emotions, and their end goals, which will help you create strategies and craft messages that will get their attention.

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Meaningful measurement prioritizes outcome over outputs

When most of us start out with measurement, we will usually first focus on outputs, which are what you do—your trainings, programs, and content—and who you reach. It’s not wrong to measure outputs, though it’s often misguided to measure only outputs. Outputs are useful when they help you observe if you’re delivering your strategy as intended, and if they help you understand the quantity and quality of your strategy implementation. Outputs essentially serve as a checkpoint.

Ultimately, we most want to measure outcomes, which are the difference you make. This can be the knowledge transferred; the behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, or awareness changed; and the benefits your audiences and community derive. Outcomes are what happen as a result of your outputs.

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Meaningful measurement uses analysis to inform strategy

Meaningful measurement is a feedback loop that lets you know how you are both advancing your organization’s overall goals and successfully executing your communications strategy.

Numbers are not the end all. To measure what matters, you have to plan to do something with the numbers, so observe your metrics and how they change over time, and think about what that might indicate your organization should do next. Measure along the way, not just at the end, so that you can make course adjustments to your strategy as measurement leads to insight.

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Meaningful measurement leads to impact

The metrics that matter most are those that tell you if your strategy is helping you meet your organization’s mission; that is, those metrics that show you moving toward impact.

To know if your strategy is working, you won’t measure just one indicator. Measure along a continuum: capacity, activity, reach, engagement, and impact. Let’s break them down:

  • Capacity Metrics. These metrics help you know whether you’ve got the resources and ability to implement your strategy. Capacity is what’s known as an input metric—what you are willing and able to put in in order to get the work done. When I work with nonprofit clients, I make sure to “right size” strategies based on what’s doable with the capacity the organization can muster. Capacity metrics might measure how much time and money, and what skills you need to get the strategy done.
  • Activity Metrics. These metrics help you better understand what you’re doing to implement your strategy. With activity metrics you can evaluate whether you’re following through on your work plan and best practices. In a communications strategy, you might measure your internal processes for producing and sharing your messages. LightBox Collaborative’s free nonprofit Editorial Calendar can help you plan and measure your communications activity metrics.
  • Reach Metrics. These metrics help you assess the size and make up of your audience so that you can understand who potentially hears your messages. For reach metrics to have meaning, be sure to assess the quality of these numbers. While these metrics may still matter a lot to executive directors, boards, and funders, you should be careful of putting too much emphasis on reach metrics in your strategy. On their own, reach metrics don’t show a complete picture of your effectiveness and may not incentivize strategic approaches.
  • Engagement Metrics. This is where you really start to see whether your strategy is succeeding or not. These metrics help you understand the effect your communications messages are having on those that hear them. Engagement metrics show when and how others engage with you, therefore audience interaction is required in these metrics. Nonprofits are not alone in their challenge of understanding how to measure engagement. Upworthy is just one of the companies radically revising the way they measure audience engagement.
  • Impact Metrics. Engagement with your organization is all well and good, but what about the change you are trying to achieve? Impact metrics help you measure the behaviors and attitudes you’ve shifted, the wrongs you’ve righted, and the change you’ve inspired. These can be challenging to measure because the impact your organization has is most often on people. You may need to do surveys or field studies, draw inferences from other metrics, use proxy data (characteristics that stand in for direct measurement), measure something small if measuring something large is too daunting or expensive, or use qualitative data.

For keeping track of and reporting on your strategic measurement, I like to start with a fairly simple spreadsheet (you can always add more complexity later if it’s useful and relevant).

I’ve created a strategic measurement worksheet that you can download and customize to align with your organization’s strategy. The worksheet is more than just a place to record your data—it also helps you remember to connect what you’re measuring to the relevant strategy and goal so that your metrics have meaning.

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With a thoughtful approach that keeps your goals and strategies in mind, your organization can successfully measure what matters.


About the author:

Lauren Girardin uses her creative chutzpah to help nonprofits and foundations engage their communities and share their stories. She specializes in moving marketing and communications projects from strategy through implementation, applying her planning foresight to right-size the work. As an independent consultant and with the LightBox Collaborative, Lauren has worked with organizations like California Family Health Council and TeenSource, YTH, TechSoup Global, the Center for a New American Dream, and the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. Reach her on Twitter at @girardinl and at lg@laurengirardin.com.

Lauren Girardin
Marketing and Communications Consultant
LightBox Collaborative
I use my creative chutzpah to help nonprofits and foundations engage their communities and share their stories. I show organizations how to experiment bravely in their social media, blogging, content marketing, media relations, presentations, brand messaging, and other digital and traditional communications. My clients have included California Family Health Council and TeenSource, Caravan Studios, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, GovLoop, NGOsource, Points of Light, Rebuilding Together, TechSoup Global, YTH, and others. Get in touch at laurengirardin.com.