Taming the Measurement Monster

When measurement is built into the process from the very beginning, it can help you deploy your stories in a more effective way.

Let’s get this out of our system: Measurement isn’t exactly what you’d call a sexy topic. In fact, nonprofits considering adding storytelling as a tactic in their toolbox typically don’t think of measurement first—that is, not until a funder asks for some stats in a progress report.

And many nonprofits believe that the creative process of storytelling should be allowed to emerge on its own, independently of all those numbers. But, and hear me out on this: When measurement is built into the process from the very beginning, it can help you deploy your stories in a more effective way, learn what’s working (or not working) with your audiences and adjust your strategy as needed. All of this to give you the right information to achieve the social change you want to see in your community.

Robert Medina, Senior Program Manager, The Aspen Institute
aspeninstitute.org/

Robert Medina is a Senior Program Manager for the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program at the Aspen Institute where he collaborates with colleagues to conduct evaluations of policy advocacy and social change campaigns. He works with foundation and nonprofit clients domestically and internationally on assessments spanning a diverse array of policy issues. He also sends out a weekly newsletter called “So What? Your Weekly Guide to Advocacy with Impact” with tips and ideas at the intersection of measurement and advocacy strategy.

Hastily putting together a story and releasing it out into the world, without a measurement plan, is rather simple to do. You select a topic that you find interesting—maybe a community member who’s been raving about your services for years, or a tireless volunteer who keeps coming back over and over again—and begin telling that story. You throw in some facts to make the story credible, and it’s ready for prime time—on social media, on your website or in a newsletter. Then you wait for all the accolades (and hefty donations) to come in. And you keep waiting, until there’s only a barely discernible blip in your organization’s bank account. Soon enough, you’re asking yourself and your colleagues, “What happened?”

(Don’t worry. We’ve all been there.)

Smart nonprofits look at storytelling a bit differently. They’re thinking strategically about the story they want to tell, how it aligns with the goals of the organization, and how their target audiences may engage through particular distribution channels. On top of it all, they’re also taking the time to carefully identify appropriate metrics for capturing if and how those audiences are interacting. Are they sharing and commenting on Facebook? Clicking your email back to your website for more information? Signing a petition? Donating to your cause?

Organizations need to choose metrics that best match their objectives. Once those metrics are set, even before your story is out there, you’re in a good position to grab the right data at the right time—the data that’s most meaningful and actionable for you. Equipped with good evidence, you can push forward with confidence if your story is resonating and inspiring action. Or, go back to tweak and revise your original strategy so your next storytelling efforts can gain traction where necessary.

If you’ve dabbled in measurement, you know that there are plenty of data collection tools and metrics to choose from. Here are three solid practices to keep in mind as you begin measuring the results of your work:

  • Connect your measurement plan to your strategy and vision for social change: Whether you’re concerned about poverty or international aid, you have an idea about how your activities—and more specifically, how the stories you plan to share—can potentially contribute to your desired outcomes. In brainstorming what to measure, stick closely to this vision. Set up your measurement plan to test whether your stories are, in fact, helping you realize your social goals in the way you envisioned.

  • Select metrics that capture what you want to learn: Don’t be seduced by the latest and most popular metrics out there. Whatever metrics you go with, ask yourself if these will give you the information you want to have on hand to make decisions about your work. Take, for example, Facebook Insights. You can download columns and columns of data about your Facebook page. Is all of it useful? Likely not. It all depends on what you’re after. And, of course, make sure to read and understand the definition of each metric in your arsenal so you know how to interpret the data later on.

  • Treat metrics as indicators, not silver bullets: So you’ve picked a suitable metric and have started collecting data on an ongoing basis. Now what? A thoughtfully chosen metric can indicate if you’re making progress (say, if more or fewer people shared your Facebook post, donated on your website, or signed up for your newsletter). But, a metric all by itself can’t tell you precisely why you achieved these results. For that, you’ll need to look at the big picture of your strategy and tease out which aspects of your story inspired deeper engagement or failed to connect with audiences.

Using measurement effectively is about being willing to experiment and fail. The benefit is that by identifying useful metrics to assess your organization’s stories, you’re creating an opportunity for your creative staff to learn and adapt iteratively. Yes, there will be a lot of trial and error involved; but now, you’re measuring your work in the spirit of getting better.

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