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How to Increase Nonprofit Impact by Putting Participants at the Center

No matter your nonprofit’s specific mission, it has helping people at its core. You aren’t providing services, designing programs, and fundraising just for the sake of your organization. Your organization exists to serve individuals with a variety of social challenges (i.e., unemployment, substance use disorder, housing instability) and help them improve their lives. This aim is best achieved when you put people at the center of your focus and measure their progress.

In a recent article, The Stanford Social Innovation Review said “Being motivated to make a difference for participants is not the same thing as placing participants at the center of managing and leading. This distinction is critical because placing participants at the center requires rethinking how they are affected by the management of these organizations, not simply by the social change strategies adopted or the programs delivered.”

But how do you do that? How do you place your beneficiaries at the center of how you manage your organization? In this blog, we will define nonprofit impact and discuss three proven strategies for increasing impact by placing your beneficiaries at the center of all you do:

  1. Include the feedback of on-the-ground experts in your program design.

  2. Increase measurable nonprofit impact by encouraging active participants.

  3. Aligning organizational impact goals with individual outcomes.

What Is Nonprofit Impact?

A nonprofit’s impact is the quantifiable difference it makes for its participants. Simply put, it’s the collective effects (intended and unintended) of a nonprofit’s work addressing social challenges in the community. Though making small changes and tackling the symptoms of inequity are part of the process, social impact is about creating deep and meaningful change that improves lives now and in the future.

Nonprofit impact can include changes in a community’s social, economic, physical, and ecological circumstances. Though there are common threads relating to frequently underserved populations and the need for human dignity, societal conditions shift from year to year and even neighborhood to neighborhood. This dynamic environment requires social-good organizations to pivot and learn as you work to address the most pressing social challenges.

For a nonprofit’s many stakeholders, a clear articulation of the organization’s impact is the key to securing funding, creating new programs, and ensuring sustainability. Let’s dive into the strategies for increasing your impact.

Strategy 1: Include the Feedback of On-The-Ground Experts in Your Program Design

Every community, demographic, and at-risk population has their own specific needs and challenges. Though some barriers to progress exist at a national or state level, others vary from city to city and even neighborhood to neighborhood. Understanding these unique circumstances is critical to developing programs that create a positive impact.

To understand the specific conditions and circumstances of your program participants, you must work with the people who know. Talk to individuals who live in the community or are part of the demographic you serve. Coordinate with other nonprofit leaders who serve the same community. Communicate with civic government leaders who have a broad view of the local challenges. And, most importantly, include your program participants in their own planning.

On-the-ground resources are valuable during the program creation phase. They can provide you with critical information that you can use to tailor your programs and services to meet the unique needs of your participants. But the value of their insight and experience does not end with program implementation. These same experts can help you understand the ever-changing circumstances of your community as you pivot and adjust your services to best accomplish your mission.

Strategy 2: Increase Measurable Nonprofit Impact by Encouraging Active Participants

Your program participants are the reason you serve. Yet too many nonprofits treat their enrollees as what Leah M. Benjamin of the Stanford Social Innovation Review calls “passive targets of program interventions.” Providing services is only part of the process in creating positive impact. People need to be active participants in their own lives. Social-good leaders need to look at their beneficiaries as “people who engage nonprofits to make changes in their lives” rather than simply being “the targets of an intervention.”

Yet, your organization and the services you provide cannot force individual change. You can only provide the resources and opportunities needed to support people as they choose to change their lives. And what that change looks like must be determined by the participants themselves.

Encouraging active participation means making people full partners in their own services. Too often, the most vulnerable are left out of identifying and solving societal problems. No matter how much you study a challenge or social barrier, the people who experience that challenge will always be the true experts. Much like the trend of person-centered care in healthcare, social-good organizations should consider the needs, values, and desires of program participants as they work together to achieve the best outcomes in the social determinants of health.

One step in encouraging participation is active listening. Active listening is about more than just hearing words. Sincerely listen with your undivided attention and a goal to understand. Make sure to pay attention to non-verbal clues such as body language and voice inflections. These can help you understand what a person is thinking and feeling, beyond their chosen words. Ask clarifying questions, but hold off on sharing your own perspective until the speaker is done. It may also be appropriate to forgo sharing your opinions all together. Active listening helps people feel seen and validated, which encourages their continued participation.

Another important part of encouraging participation is addressing barriers. Someone may be interested in being involved but lack transportation or childcare to attend meetings and events. Individuals who have been involved in the past may have been discouraged by unproductive meetings or unrealistic expectations. Some individuals may also face insecurities connected to lack of experience or a sense of powerlessness in the face of challenges.

Instead of becoming frustrated or assuming the worst about people’s motivations, work towards finding creative solutions that overcome barriers. Provide childcare or arrange transportation. Stay organized and productive to encourage continued participation. Provide training or find needed tasks that fit existing skill sets. Everyone has strengths and something to contribute, they just need an opportunity to show it.

Strategy 3: Aligning Organizational Impact Goals with Individual Outcomes

Organizations who successfully put participants at the center focus on aligning measurable organizational goals with the outcomes their participants wish to achieve. Another way to think about this is aligning the organization’s “why” with their participants’ “why.” Your organization’s whys and your participants’ whys, while they certainly overlap, are distinct and unique from one another. And maintaining a sort of dual-vision throughout your work—looking from the inside out, as well as the from the outside in—is essential to reflect upon and to align both perspectives to each and every aspect of your organization’s programs and services.

The core of an organization’s why lies in its mission statement. The mission statement holds the essence of why the organization exists and the social challenge you’re meant to be solving. The core of the participants’ why is the reason they are engaging with your organization in order to better their lives. Understanding your participants’ whys and integrating their voices into all aspects of your proposed solutions will add the depth and the “what’s in it for them” component that is needed to ensure you are meeting their needs and achieving the best outcomes.

For example, a nonprofit with the mission to create stable and thriving families could meet with a variety of individuals in their community to determine their definition of a “thriving” family and the existing barriers to achieving that goal. The nonprofit could then create programs to address the barriers to stability and use some or all of the Arizona Self-Sufficiency Matrix to measure their participants’ progress towards achieving stability in areas such as income, employment, housing, food, family relations, and parenting skills.

Move to Prosper

An organization who is successfully aligning their whys and their participants’ whys is Move to PROSPER. Move to PROSPER is an innovative program to improve life outcomes for children and their mothers in Central Ohio by creating opportunities for residential and financial stability. Move to PROSPER was developed through a partnership between The Ohio State University’s City and Regional Planning Program, community partners, and feedback from individuals in the community.

Move to PROSPER makes affordable rental housing available to single moms in neighborhoods that offer access to opportunities, such as higher-resourced schools, safer neighborhoods, and employment. Life coaches assist program participants in increasing their personal, educational, health, and employment stability.

Move to PROSPER uses SureImpact to simplify the process for measuring individual and family life outcomes, and to prove they are better off as a result of their programming. SureImpact is a purpose-built impact management solution designed for social-good providers by social-good providers. CEO and Founder, Sheri Chaney Jones spent 20 years as a program evaluator for social-good organizations before launching SureImpact.

SureImpact has an Outcomes Measures library with over 200 best-practice outcomes to help you track and manage the progress of your unique beneficiaries. SureImpact also enables you to create your own outcome measures as you work with your beneficiaries to continuously improve the services you provide for them to help them thrive.

People should always be at the center of everything you do as a social-good organization. Creating social impact means achieving deep and lasting change that removes barriers and improves the lives of real people. Keeping people at the center of your focus requires relying on the expertise and experience of both subject matter experts and the very people you are trying to serve. You cannot help program participants succeed until you understand their needs and their personal definition of success. Real and lasting impact is most likely to be achieved when you involve people in their own services and then define and measure their progress.

To learn more about how to increase your nonprofit impact, download our Ebook “The Ultimate Guide to Impact Management: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leveraging Technology to Track, Measure, and Communicate Your Social Impact.”


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