Communicating Nonprofit Impact: The Power of Data-Driven Reporting

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October 25, 2023

Last Updated:

October 26, 2023

Unlocking the power of data in nonprofits can significantly strengthen an organization’s ability to evaluate its programming and build trust among funders and other external partners.

Data is one of the best ways you can demonstrate the impact your nonprofit has on those you serve and the broader community.

In this article, we will provide a comprehensive guide on the role of data in the work of nonprofits and grant program evaluation. We will explain how data can benefit your nonprofit organization by improving transparency, accountability, and fostering sustainable growth.

Let’s dive in!

Introduction: The Role of Data in Nonprofits

Leveraging data is one of the most powerful ways a nonprofit organization can demonstrate impact.

The right kinds of data can show funders and external audiences how their funding has made a positive impact on the lives of others. It also can show your nonprofit’s stakeholders that they can trust your organization to do good work and deliver results with their support.

Let’s spend some time going over the top ways collecting impact data can foster meaningful change at your nonprofit organization.

The Shift to Data-Driven Decision Making

Data in nonprofits can have a strong impact on effective organizational decision making.

Making decisions at a nonprofit based on instinct is never a sound idea. Instead, the right kinds of data can be useful for program adaptation and modification.

Here’s a few ways how:

  • Analyzing program outcomes can help an organization identify challenges and problem areas in program design and shift strategies and planning to address these issues.
  • Evaluating program costs, revenue, and expenditures can be beneficial for developing targeted fundraising strategies for a specific program.
  • Evaluating program costs can also help identify inefficiencies in spending and or identify budget gaps that can influence fundraising strategies.
  • Analyzing qualitative data like participant surveys can help ensure services and staff are effectively meeting needs and can identify areas for improvement. 

While positive outcomes can be persuasive in advocating for the efficacy of a nonprofit’s programming, negative outcomes are not necessarily an outright bad result. You see, negative outcomes can help make the case for additional funding or could position the nonprofit to shift program design to better fit the needs of participants and improve results over the long-term.

Overall, data-driven decision making is a sure fire strategy to help your nonprofit sustain its mission and further its impact.

Connecting Data to Impact: Why It Matters

Illustrating impact is crucial for all nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofit organizations provide vital services, support, and care to those who need it most in their communities. It is important for nonprofits to operate with transparency and to hold themselves accountable to their stakeholders, including:

  • Funders
  • Nonprofit staff
  • Community residents
  • Those served by the organization

Fortunately, data is a great tool for transparency, illustrating how a nonprofit operates and what the results of their activities are.

For example, you can use data in your nonprofit’s grant reports, providing a high level of transparency to funders on how the award was spent and what kind of impact those dollars made.

You can also use data in external communications, such as social media posts, annual reports, and newsletters. This can encourage your supporters to donate by illustrating the impact of their support.

Take for example this social media post from Feeding America. The organization succinctly illustrates how even a small donation of $1 can purchase 10 meals for those in need. This demonstrates a need in the community while encouraging individuals to give what they can to contribute to this critical work.

This kind of transparency helps give supporters peace of mind that their support will have a significant impact.

The Basics of Data Collection for Nonprofit Organizations

Data collection for nonprofit organizations can take many forms.

Here are the three most common types:

  • Quantitative data (numerical, measurable data)
  • Quantitative data (conceptual data that is observed or collected through interviews)
  • Mixed method data (a mixture of the two)

There are many ways to collect and track this type of data depending on the size and scope of your program or project being evaluated.

Let’s review some of the key methodologies, tools, and platforms you can leverage to effectively collect data at your nonprofit organization.

Methods of Gathering Data: Surveys, Interviews, Observations, and More

Gathering data can be challenging for nonprofit organizations. Maybe your nonprofit serves hundreds of people a year and tracking each person engaged can become a difficult process.

Luckily there are a few tried and true methods to gather quality data for your nonprofit organization.

Surveys are one of the most common forms of data collection for nonprofit organizations.

Surveys are very versatile in that they can be disseminated quickly and efficiently among large groups of people while collecting both qualitative and quantitative data from respondents. A challenge for surveys is that it is no guarantee that there will be a 100% response rate.

That being said there are many ways to help ensure that you will receive the most responses possible. Some strategies include:

  • Choosing an appropriate medium,
  • Using close-ended questions,
  • Sending surveys out at the appropriate time (usually within 24 hours of receiving services or engaging in an experience),
  • Designing the survey to be quick, clear, and concise, and
  • Providing incentives for respondents to complete the survey.

Interviews are effective methods for collecting strong qualitative data.

Interviewing participants, volunteers, or program staff can help you better understand what is happening at the program level, what is effective, what is ineffective, and what is making the biggest impact on the lives of participants.

An interview can be lengthy with many questions or it can be a simple, short conversation asking how the organization or program in question has made an impact in the life of the person being interviewed. Even if the response does not result in a long participant story it can still provide brief impactful quotes that hit home about the positive impact of the program.

For example, The Trevor Project utilizes feedback from volunteers for publication on their website, underscoring the importance of the work the organization does and the positive impact it has on the community it serves.

The Trevor Project

are another way to effectively collect qualitative data.

Program staff who are working one-on-one with participants often notice trends and patterns that won’t always be captured in quantitative data collection.

Participant intake forms are another way of collecting important data especially related to participant demographics, experiences, and needs.

Participant intake forms can ask individuals to share their race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, disability status, or other information relevant to the program that will help influence its design and the type of service provision.

Always be aware that participant information is sensitive and should be managed with the greatest amount of care. For guidance on how to follow appropriate legal regulations and guidelines on participant information collection, consider reaching out to legal experts with nonprofit experience to provide the appropriate guidance specific to your organization’s needs.

Data tracking can be accomplished via a variety of different online tools or software available.

Microsoft Excel, for example, is a very easy way to track quantitative data about participants, program outcomes and outputs, changes over time, budgets, and other key information required for most grant or impact reports.

Data tracking is imperative for leveraging data in nonprofits to evaluate programs and demonstrate the efficacy of services and programming.

Tools and Platforms for Nonprofit Data Collection

There are countless tools and resources on the market to aid you in effectively collecting data for your nonprofit organization.

Customer Relationship Management platforms (CRMs) like Salesforce can help you easily track quantitative and qualitative participant data.

Salesforce’s platform enables you to track very basic demographic data, numerical data (e.g., number of hours engaged, served, etc.) and qualitative data like case notes or general note taking about individual participant data. CRMs can also be easily integrated with other programs to make analyzing and evaluating large amounts of data very simple.


For nonprofits who are working with smaller amounts of participants and who do not require large scale tracking, using simple spreadsheets like that available through Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets can be an effective way to track both quantitative and qualitative data.

Spreadsheets are an excellent choice for quantitative data since these tools are able to analyze and evaluate large amounts of numerical data and track trends over time with the use of simple equations.

Google Sheets

There are several options for surveys as well.

Survey Monkey is a platform with many templates available for nonprofits that can be tailored to different audiences. Google Forms is another survey tool that makes it easy to collect simple quantitative data and leave space for detailed qualitative responses as well.

Survey Monkey

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Measuring Impact in Nonprofit Initiatives

Impact can look different depending on the type of program, the size of the program, and what the program’s overall objective is. Let’s take a look at what success looks like for nonprofits and how to identify key metrics for effective impact assessment.

Defining Impact: What Does Success Look Like?

Impact can look different from nonprofit to nonprofit and can even look different between programs at the same organization. It really all comes down to what the objectives of the program are and what kind of impact the nonprofit intends to make through the program.

For example, a program could have thousands of participants who are engaged through online training or seminars. These large numbers served can appear incredible when taken at face value—serving 1,000 participants is huge no matter what kind of program it is!

That being said, while on its face 1,000 participants served can sound incredible, that does not necessarily mean it is any more or less impactful than a program that serves 20 participants but provides very intensive, specifically tailored services. It is not worse and it is not better, it’s just different!

It is important to articulate what success looks like for your organization to set appropriate expectations and to know what kind of data collection and tracking your program should utilize.

Key Metrics and Indicators for Nonprofit Impact Assessment

Remember, your nonprofit’s successes should be directly tied to the overall mission of your organization. You should always be able to explain how your program outcomes and outputs contribute to your organization's goals.

Take for example, Habitat for Humanity. Their mission is “Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope” and their vision is “A world where everyone has a decent place to live”.

From these key statements, we know that Habitat for Humanity is focused on ensuring that everyone has access to a home and housing. Examples of mission-centric impact indicators for Habitat for Humanity could be:

  • Number of homes built
  • Number of individuals provided with a safe, stable home
  • Percent of individuals and/or families who decreased their housing insecurity
  • Percent of individuals and/or families who improved their housing stability, among others.

Habitat for Humanity

When it comes to creating different metrics and indicators to assess, make sure to align them with your organization’s mission.

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Impact Reports: Showcasing Nonprofit Achievements

Once a program has been effectively evaluated, the collected data and assessments should be published in an impact report.

Impact reports can take many forms. Some impact reports are for internal use only, and others are given out to other external partners and entities. Other impact reports are specific to funders, reporting on specific grants and associated grant periods. There are also impact reports that are published for the general public to access, often in the form of annual reports.

Anatomy of an Effective Impact Report

As mentioned above, impact reports will look different depending on their purpose and audience.

However, most reports have a general structure and key items that are addressed in some way regardless of the intended audience.

Most annual reports will highlight key metrics or outcomes that were collected for the report such as the number of participants served, increases or improvements across participant life domains, and other notable numerical achievements. Many reports, especially those intended for the public, will illustrate this information through the use of infographics or images for readability and clarity.

The Midwest Access Coalition incorporates both infographics and images to illustrate the impact of their work in their most recent annual report.

The Midwest Access Coalition

Most impact reports will also include a section for financials.

The report’s financials will also look different depending on the audience and the purpose of the report. An annual report intended for public use may give a brief overview of their general financials along with a list of key funders, whereas a report to a government agency or even a foundation will require a detailed grant spend down with budgeted actuals along with attached budget documents and audited organization finances.

Take, for example, the most recently published annual report from Feeding America.

Notice how they utilize graphics to illustrate the impact and scope of their work, using images that evoke a grocery store or food pantry to demonstrate how much revenue they earned and how those dollars contributed to their mission.

Feeding America

Most reports will also include a program narrative, reporting out on key metrics and outcomes along with descriptive observations, lessons learned, plans for the future, and context for many of the outcomes and achievements noted.

While not always required or included in every impact report, the most effective typically will incorporate a participant story. As discussed previously, impact stories can help make connections between all of the data reported, connecting reported observations and numerical data and illustrating how those outcomes materialize at the personal level.

Habitat for Humanity often utilizes participant stories to demonstrate the organization’s impact. You can review several stories published to their website for ideas on how to craft compelling and inspiring participant impact narratives.

Habitat for Humanity

Tailoring Impact Reports for Different Audiences

Remember, not every report is accessible or appropriate for every type of audience. Reporting should be tailored to best address key audiences including donors, beneficiaries, and the general public.

For example, a donor may have a better understanding of what the nonprofit does that will allow them to understand more of the complex or nuanced aspects of a program or initiative.

On the other hand, the general public may still be getting to know the basics about your organization. When developing reports specifically for members of the general public it is important to ensure that the report is readable by any person regardless of their background or familiarity with your organization.

Regardless of your audience, you should always speak in clear, concise terms when explaining a program’s work or achievements.

Wrapping Up: The Next Steps

Data-driven reporting is key to the success of any nonprofit program and growing a strong base of support to help grow and sustain your organization over the long term.

Want to learn more about how to unlock the power of data-driven reporting to strengthen your organization’s programs and other principles of effective fundraising and development? Look no further than this grant writing class on how to show impact through digital grant reports.

You can leverage the tips and resources from the class to strengthen your fundraising strategies and grow your nonprofit. Check it out today to learn more!

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