Numbers come naturally to most nonprofit organizations. It’s easy enough to track and measure data that reflects your successes or alerts you to failures. For nonprofits it’s standard—but not best—practice to collect and report data without a second look. But innovating, results-oriented executive directors and nonprofit board members are on to a better method.

Savvy nonprofits are increasingly interested in outcomes instead of numbers. Rather than reporting raw data to ensure accountability to donors, they take their numbers one step further. Outcome measurement helps nonprofits understand how well they are helping constituents—rather than how many constituents they are helping.

Outcome measurement also gives nonprofits insight into the state of their relationships with donors and constituents. Measuring outcomes indicates nonprofit performance better than reporting numbers because it goes deeper (and thus is more informative) than statistical measurement.

Incorporate an outcome measurement plan to improve your nonprofit’s performance. Here’s my advice for getting started.

Work from Your Goals

Before creating an outcome measurement plan, identify what you’re after. Start small and pinpoint one or two weak spots you need to strengthen. If you serve food to the hungry, begin measuring outcomes in cities where your soup kitchen feeds the least. Seek answers to questions that explain why you’re feeding less.

Measuring the outcome of services in these areas may surprise you. Perhaps the food served doesn’t appeal to the demographic you want to feed. Maybe the mealtime conflicts with their schedules. Or your location could be hard to reach. Think broadly to arrive at a specific answer.

Talk It Out

They say the numbers speak for themselves, but that’s rarely the case for nonprofits. Outcome measurement isn’t about numbers, but words. Ask supporters, volunteers and beneficiaries questions that reflect satisfaction with your performance. Mailed questionnaires typically elicit more thorough responses than in-person or telephone interviews. Expect to mail your surveys more than once for the most responses. Lastly, remember that thanking respondents is as important as thanking donors.

Past Experience

Outcome measurement’s value will make itself known with each set of responses. Analyze the results over time to monitor your progressions and regressions.

For example, collect information from respondents shortly after the time of service and some time after completion. This kind of follow-up measures long-term outcomes, rather than less valuable short-term ones.

Outcome measurement promotes accountability, inspires improvement and encourages dialogue with constituents. How can your nonprofit do to measure outcomes instead of numbers?