#143 Sybil Speaks: Measuring Impact

Aug 27, 2023

Success can be difficult to measure. How do we know how well the nonprofit is able to tackle the societal issues we want to solve? Sybil explains why it is important to have a good plan of action to measure impact, and how to approach your giving in a way that will reach your goals.

Episode Highlights:

  • Measuring the success of your donations
  • Successfully gauging the impact of your giving strategy
  • Checklist for developing a four-step personalized plan.

Sybil Ackerman-Munson Bio:

With over 20 years of experience as a nonprofit professional and foundation advisor, I work with philanthropic institutions and foundations interested in successful, high-impact grant making, so you can make a real and lasting positive contribution to the world on your terms.


If you enjoyed this episode, listen to these as well:

#24 Sybil Speaks: Learn Not To Do Harm With Your Funding Strategy

#54 The True Elements of a Successful Funder Collaboration to Make a Difference in the World with Heather Tuininga, Principal, 10/10 Strategies

#96 The Key Steps To Be Clear and Honest With Your Favorite Nonprofit, with Brent Fenty Executive Director of The Oregon Desert Land Trust

Crack the Code: Sybil’s Successful Guide to Philanthropy

Become even better at what you do as Sybil teaches you the strategies as well as the tools you’ll need to avoid mistakes and make a career out of philanthropy.

Sybil offers resources that include special free short video mini-courses, templates, and key check lists and words of advice summarized in easy to review pdfs.    


Check out Sybil’s website with all the latest opportunities to learn from Sybil at www.doyourgood.com 


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Would you like to talk with Sybil directly?

Send in your inquiries through her website https://www.doyourgood.com/ or you can email her directly at [email protected]!


Hello everybody I'm really happy about this particular topic, which is to talk to you about how to measure the impact of your donations. I'm really excited. I'm talking about this with you because It's something that so many of my clients, my friends, and my colleagues ask me about. “Sybil, how do we make sure that we have all the best intentions in mind when we donate and have it made a difference for a but how do we know that our money is even important? How can we measure our impact? It's sort of the core question, right?

So today I'm going to talk to you about my strategies and how I approach measuring impact. And then I have some wonderful interviews for you this month too, from other professionals who've really thought through the answers to this question of how you measure impact. 

So, I guess before I go into my more formal presentation to you about how to measure impact and how to do it well, I just want to relay a story to you. I was thinking a lot about this because my son just left for a drive across the country. Back to college. And I was thinking about measuring impact in the same way that I think about how to support my kids, my son, and my three stepkids. And it actually hit me that there were some similarities there. And so maybe, if you have kids, you can relate to this. 

With all my kids that I love so much as a parent, I want the best for them, and I have to be careful, right? Because they're their own people, they're going to make their own mistakes. They are going to go on their own journey. They're going to decide the things that they love and the things that they don't love. And they're going to move forward. My idea of success for them may be very, very different in the end from their idea of success. But in the end, you know what my true idea of success is for them and for me as a parent, is how successful are they at finding happiness? A purpose in life? And are they kind people? Are they empathetic? To me, it's not even really in the end if I'm honest with myself about what internship they get or what job they get. That's not it. That's not it. It's really about how they are living their lives in a way that allows them to be happy. And have a fruitful life that also helps other people.

So, at the end of my life, when I look back on being a parent, my measurement of success is not going to be about the day-to-day stuff. Every year, did they get this, and that mark correct towards their path to discovery? Really, what it will be is that as a parent, I'll look back and say, was I successful at supporting the four—my four kids, my three stepkids, and my son—to help them achieve their vision in life? And are they happy? And if they're not, I'll feel like I wasn't as successful. What did I do wrong? How could I have helped them more? 

The reason I tell you this story is that I think it's really important to think of it when you start giving to nonprofits and you care about it because you care about a societal issue, and you want to help make a difference. The long-term horizon is important. And be honest with yourself about the core reasons you're funding and not get too hung up on or distracted by the benchmarks and the timelines. Don't get me wrong, you want to do that; you want to have those benchmarks and timelines in your own mind to move forward. We'll talk about how you can create that today.

But before we started there, I wanted to make sure that you knew where I come from and how I come from. When you're thinking about your donations. It's very similar to all other kinds of teaching I do are really fundamentally about why you're doing the thing you're doing. Why do you care about this societal issue? Why is it that you want to fund something to make a difference? And it's OK that your donation may not be the pivotal donation all the time. But it's important. Any nonprofit will tell you that a donation, large or small, no matter how big or small, matters to them. Because they're usually running their nonprofit on a shoestring budget, even if their budget is huge, if their budget is large, it just means that their reach is larger, and they're really committed to helping the people and solving the societal problem you care about. So, I just wanted to say all that first. Thanks for listening. Thanks for letting me be on my Soapbox for a minute, OK? 

Now we're going to get into it. The first thing I want to talk about is that I don't want you to fall into the trap of thinking that there's only one magic formula to measure the impact of your donation. You're going to hear this from some folks, they're going to say. Here's our special matrix: And here's our thing in that thing: You can look at those things, but you need to find what's good for you. 

Instead, it’s one of the most subjective things you're going to do in your giving strategy. Success is essentially what you decide it is, and that's totally true. OK.

So, measuring the success of your new donations and how your money addresses a societal problem is very, very different from measuring the success of a for-profit company. So, if you made your money based on good business acumen, hats off to you. But you may have to relearn how is success defined in the nonprofit SPA. Because when you're trying to do good in the world, instead of widgets, sales, and nonprofits, ultimate success is based on whether you can address the societal challenges you're trying to solve. 

Don't get me wrong, though; the nonprofit also needs to ensure that it's raising enough money to pay its bills and that it's actively engaging in public. And you know engaging the public and volunteers and their activities needs to be vibrant, but you and I know that the reason you're giving them and the reason that they're there in the first place Is to tackle the societal challenge. It's not just meant to raise money. It's not just to do that. It's to deal with the societal norm, so it's a really different approach to measuring success, OK? 

I want you to be really successful at gauging the impact. And you're giving me a strategy, so if it's a societal issue or problem you want to solve and it's tough to quantify, it's challenging to win, and it may take generations to accomplish. Just acknowledge that, first and foremost, that doesn't mean you can't have a strategy, and we'll talk about that. But just give yourself some grace and recognize that these are things that can take many, many years. I always think about how the women's suffrage movement was so important in my life as a woman. So many of the women who worked in the women's suffrage movement didn't even live to see women voting. But man, did they succeed in a lot of things? So just have faith there too. A little bit of faith. 

OK, here's my pro tip for you: For this, the clearer you are with your own definition of your successful giving strategy, the more likely you are to be satisfied with the outcome of your strategy from year to year and the impact that you're making. So, we're again going to talk about how to create a special plan to measure impact in a minute. But I want to step back and say all of the exercises and work that I've done with you over the years to help you decide whether you're a sustainer, a campaigner, or a launch donor. How do you really think about the giving strategy and the societal issue you want to work on based on who you are and how interested you are in the topic? These are all critical to helping you then really be able to tell if you feel that your strategy is having an impact, so make sure you do all that first.

So, the other thing I want to make sure I'm clear with you about If you're a sustainer donor, measuring impact is very different. Then, if you're a campaigner or launcher donor, as a sustainer donor. That means you're somebody who wants to fund a nonprofit year to year. And you love everything that the nonprofit is doing. If you have any questions about whether you're a sustainer, campaigner, or launcher, I've got tons of exercises to help you ID your donor type on my website. Go check that out.

I also have links to it in the show notes for those training. But if you're a sustainer donor, measuring impact is a lot simpler. So that's a benefit to being a sustainer donor. You want to just make sure that the nonprofit is solvent and that it's continuing year by year, and you may want to look at the annual report that they already do every year in their strategic plan just to ensure that what they're doing and what they continue to be doing are in line with everything you care about and what you love. You have to be honest with yourself if you're a sustainer donor and say that's what you're doing. You're giving money to them generally. 

One word of caution: if you have identified yourself as a sustainer donor, don't then go in and start creating your own metrics. Your own idea, your own timeline, and then imposing that on the nonprofit because that's not what the sustainer donor does. And that's when the nonprofit will get confused, and you'll end up causing a lot of extra time and money for them to have to try to run, to catch up to you because you haven't been clear from the start about the fact that you are actually asking them for all those details... Funding a campaign.

This is, you might say, I've been listening to you for so long. I'm very clear on my donor type. Don't worry about But I have to tell you, I see this mistake happening often, and this is one of the key things they get nonprofits get super grumpy, and it can stand in the way of your impact if you present to them like you're a sustainer. And then you ask them for lots of extra information to have them tell you how they're measuring impact. If you're a donor, stand back and just read what they offer you, and then decide. Year by year? Are they continuing to do everything that you believe you want to do with your giving strategy? If they're not, maybe you're actually a campaign donor. Maybe you want to rejigger the way you do your giving. That's totally fine, too. Just be clear with yourself and with the nonprofits about how you approach it.

OK, so now we're going to talk about if you're a campaigner or a launcher donor, you do need to create your own special plan that can help you measure impact over time, and it's actually not too difficult, but it's really critical you do this. Remember that campaigners and launcher donors see a problem that they want to solve in a specific time frame. And it's a really big issue for you. 

So, it's great that all the different nonprofits are working on the problem you want to solve, but you're probably funding a whole bunch of different groups just to solve that problem, and a lot of times, nonprofits are working on multiple societal problems. And so sometimes it's just a piece of the work they do. So that's why you need to piece it together in your own mind so that you can be comfortable as you measure your own impact in your giving strategy every year. 

OK, so there are four key points, and I have a checklist here for you to think about. So first we just talked about this a little bit, but let's talk about this checklist. You have a clear understanding of the issue you care about and the problem you want to solve. We just talked about that being very important. Can you check that off? If you can write it down, do it. Write down your clear understanding of the problem. Want to solve it?

The second piece of the checklist You know the nonprofits very well and believe they can accomplish the task at hand, so you know them really well, and you know the specific expertise each nonprofit has to be able to solve that problem. Maybe one nonprofit is good at legal work, and maybe one is good at communications. Maybe another is great at grassroots organizing. All the different things and so that's another part of the checklist. Write it all down. Write down the different groups. What are they doing of that kind? 

The third thing I've created for myself is a timeline with benchmarks to reach the goal of solving the problem. OK, so then you also sketched this out for yourself. You've said OK, year one, year two, year three, and year 4, year 5, this is what I think all the groups are going to be able to accomplish. Maybe there's some major decision that a public agency is making at a certain time. Maybe there's an important piece of research that's happening and that'll be done by a certain time, and then there's going to be a lot of organizing around the report comes out. You can write all that down for yourself. 

Then comes the fourth and final item. You'll check your assumptions every year and make course corrections if necessary, and let me tell you, with campaigns and with launching something, you will be making course corrections. So that's it. Let me summarize again. Number one, you have a clear understanding of the problem. You want to. Solve #2. You know, the nonprofits really, really well, and #3, you've created a timeline for yourself with benchmarks. And #4: You check your assumptions every year and correct them if necessary.

OK, so this is something you're doing just for yourself. You're not necessarily giving this to nonprofits or anything else. You're just… It's a guide for you, so you can measure impact. It's also really, really helpful if you're working on a campaign and maybe your funding strategy is in place, if you're doing it with a family member, or if you're on the board of a foundation. It can really help to explain to others who may not be as in the middle of it all as you are where you're going with the strategy and what you're doing. 

So those are the four key things.

I want to make sure that you remember a few things too. I have five key points to remember. Just remember them as you're thinking about impact. Be open to creative solutions to unforeseen obstacles. Whatever your funding, things are going to be … when you start, you're going to think it's going to go from A to B to C, but it probably will go from A-Z to D to F. All over the place. And if you have benchmarks, really, that's all they are: benchmarks. It might mean that the benchmark is met, and it might mean that it isn't, and if it isn't, it's actually a great opportunity for learning and its sort of a nice reason why you have those. I think it's not just to see if you meet them, but if you do. What are some creative strategies that the nonprofits are telling you need to happen? We didn't meet the X, Y, or Z benchmarks. 

So, it's not necessarily a bad thing if you don't meet a benchmark; it might just mean you want to, of course. Keep it simple. Keep your plan as simple as possible so that you can really stay motivated. Sometimes I've seen people try to create an impact. Plan and it's from and measuring for success plan and they get so much time just creating that plan. That they get. Paralyzed and ended up not even really funding this stuff. That's a real problem. Don't do that. Don't get yourself too wrapped up. Keep it simple. 

Think long-term. Remember the women's suffrage movement? Think long-term; you might have benchmarks and timelines that are just like five years long but recognize that whatever societal issue you're working ones likely something that has been there for a long time and will continue to be there long after you're gone. And long after, maybe you've stopped your funding strategy. But really, how can you have a measurable impact with the time that you're giving? So, think long-term and still think empowerment. Be empowered by your own giving strategy within that context.

Also, you know, you might be listening to me and going, oh my gosh, I just don't have the expertise to really know the nonprofits that well. Maybe I should just be a sustainable donor. Maybe you should. That's great. Sustaining donations is amazing and so important for the nonprofit. But if you're really intrigued by the societal problem and you really want to help solve it, don't let the fact that you don't know as much about the issue stop you. 

That's when you might also want to think about hiring an intermediary. If the problem requires an expert at the issue to help you achieve your goals, as I did my whole life, I've done so much stuff on intermediaries because that's what I do. I spent a month on it in my podcast, and I also have a fact sheet there to learn more about intermediaries. If you haven't already checked out all my stuff, I have a little fact sheet. It's free, and it's on my website, and I have a link to it in my show notes. OK, so hire an intermediary. 

Don't let the stress about the fact that you might not know enough about an issue to stop you because you can make a big difference as a campaigner and launch your funder, OK? And remember, remember, remember that not all the best-laid plans will succeed within the assumed time frame. Have a Plan B. You might not have it written out right away but be ready to talk to the nonprofits about what your plan B is if this mentor doesn't work, that kind of thing. 

All right, so have a good time figuring out your ideal strategy for success. And be sure to stay inspired and motivated in your giving strategy. Best of luck to all of you.