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Why Data-Driven Impact Stories are the Secret to Increased Funding and Donor Engagement

Sheri Chaney Jones

Sheri Chaney Jones

Sheri Chaney Jones is the founder and president of SureImpact. A researcher and expert in social impact measurement, Sheri believes in data, metrics, and accountability. She is a thought leader on public sector evaluation and applied organizational research. She is the author of Impact & Excellence: Data-Driven Strategies for Aligning Mission, Culture, and Performance in Nonprofit and Government Organizations (Jossey Bass, 2014). Sheri is passionate about women’s equity and the advancement of girls. She is the Columbus Chapter President of the National Association of Women Business Owners and a Commissioner for the Columbus.

Sheri is invested in helping social-good organizations further their missions in measurable ways. As an experienced Ultimate Guide to Impactspeaker, Sheri enjoys sharing her expertise in nonprofit leadership and social impact with other nonprofit professionals so that they can drive impact for their organization and foster a culture of continuous change.

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Tue. Nov 28, 2023

0:01 – Hugh Ballou This is Hugh Ballou back for a new episode of The Nonprofit Exchange. Ah, Sherry Chaney-Jones is my guest today, and she found me. And I said, wow, this is a great story. We need to let her tell her story. So welcome, Sherry, to The Nonprofit Exchange. And tell people a little bit about who you are and the work you do and why you do this work.

0:26 – Shari Chaney Jones Thanks, Hugh. Thanks for having me on your show today. I’m absolutely grateful to be here. So I’m Sherry Cheney-Jones. I am an impact measurement expert, which I never in a million years thought would be something I would describe myself as. But I have spent the past 20 years helping nonprofit leaders become impact-centric organizations, having high-performing measurement cultures where they’re using data aligned with their mission to help them change lives and change circumstances.

0:54 – Shari Chaney Jones And how I got here is I actually decided to, I studied industrial and organizational psychology when I was a student. And I was always fascinated about how we predict performance. So as a young person, I had dyslexia and, you know, we had to take all those tests. And I always thought, how are these tests don’t reflect who I am or what I believed my aptitude was. I just got fascinated with how we use data to predict performance. And so I went into a profession thinking I was going to design selection tests for a living.

1:31 – Shari Chaney Jones But luckily for me, my very first job out of graduate school was helping people with severe and persistent mental illness find work. So using everything I knew about people and organization fit and data and prediction, but then into the social sector and the nonprofit sector. So that’s when I made a giant pivot and spent the past 20 years working with, I was in government for 10 years as a government funder, helping nonprofits and government, like evaluating how well we were measuring impact, and then using that same data to go raise more money from the feds or policymakers.

2:09 – Shari Chaney Jones And then in 2010, I launched my first company, Measurement Resources Company, which is an organizational development and research firm. Helping nonprofits measure their own impact, and just to fall in love with the sector and helping everyone use data to tell their stories. And we’ll talk about all the great reasons why they want to do that. And then just to highlight, in 2018, I launched another company, Sure Impact, which is a technology platform that automates this for nonprofits.

2:40 – Hugh Ballou Wow. You know, we talk about impact, but it’s kind of a nuisance to have to deal with it. And actually, money has ears. And if we want to get funders, we have to really measure impact. And especially if you give a grant, they want to know what the impact of that grant funding is. So it’s kind of a daunting topic. And I imagine some people push back, no, we’ve got to help people. We don’t have time to do this. But it’s essential part of what we do is to tell the stories of the difference we’re making.

3:15 – Hugh Ballou So where do you get started with measuring impact?

3:19 – Shari Chaney Jones Yeah, and I know it’s daunting, and the majority of the listeners probably did not go into the nonprofit sector because they loved math and statistics and data and numbers, right? We went into the sector because we have a passion for the missions that we do. And so what I like to ask nonprofit leaders that are like, okay, I know I need to measure my impact because we have research now that shows that organizations who are able to tell their story with data, improve how they’re changing lives and changing circumstances, raise more money.

3:55 – Shari Chaney Jones And so think about it as a means to an end. That’s how I think about it. It’s not about data for data’s sake or numbers for numbers’ sake. You’re doing this for two reasons. One, it’s because it will help you raise more money for your mission. No money, no mission, so we need that. And secondly, it will ensure that you’re actually creating the change in lives and changing circumstances that you want. And I don’t want to start with a negative story, but I’m going to. And that is that my part of my passion and why I do what I do is because right out of my first job working for the Franklin County Domestic and Juvenile Courts, I found that we were making kids worse.

4:37 – Shari Chaney Jones Now, we didn’t want to make kids worse. We, like everybody in, they were wonderful people with wonderful hearts that wanted to do really great work for young people. But unfortunately, there was something wrong in our program design that we didn’t recognize. We thought we were doing good, but we weren’t. And had we not had leadership that was willing to say, you know, let’s make sure we’re measuring our impact. Let’s make sure that we are truly changing these kids’ lives. 20 years later, we could still be making generations of kids worse, but because we were willing to measure our impact, we learned, huh, we probably should do this a little differently, and we’re able to pivot the program so that we did have a more effective program.

5:27 – Hugh Ballou Wow. Wow. So, my brain’s just going all over the place. We get pushback. I work with non-profit leaders, too. And I think part of when people push back on something is they don’t really understand the value of it. And you made a good, strong case that, yes, funders are going to look at those numbers, but, you know, we can’t get board members. Maybe we’re not telling them the story of the impact. Yeah. People donating their time is a much bigger deal than people donating money. Talk about some of the strategies.

6:07 – Hugh Ballou You’re gathering data, and that’s just, you know, we’re, a lot of us who are leaders are people, people people. We like people, we want to work with people. This data thing seems cold and hard. Yeah. Enlighten me, how do we, learn the data and how does that help us do our job?

6:28 – Shari Chaney Jones Sure. So I always like to make data feel more personable because we are people, people. Right. And how I like to start out is ask nonprofit leaders three questions five times. I call this the five wise exercise. And I’m sure you’ve done this root cause analysis. I’ve kind of got my own spin on it. And that is to ask a nonprofit leader why you do what you do. And not personally, but why does the organization do what it does? And answer that five times. Then the second one is, why do your funders fund you?

7:03 – Shari Chaney Jones And answer that five times. And why do your participants or those that partner with you want to work with you? What do they hope to accomplish? And answer that five times. But we’re not talking about data yet. We’re just talking about your why your organization’s wise and what’s fascinating with the nonprofit sector is that you’ll learn that often your participants wise your funders wise and your mission your organization’s wise aren’t always the same. Because maybe if you’re a government funder, you want to save taxpayer dollars.

7:40 – Shari Chaney Jones You’re looking to keep people in a lower cost, you know, tax. Like when I was in the juvenile courts, our whole mission was to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system. Did we care about kids? Yes, absolutely we did. But we also had a charge to make sure we were very good stewards of taxpayer dollars. So that’s what we were looking at. Was, do you keep our kids out of our system so we don’t have to pay for them? But the kids themselves, what do they want to do when they engage with a nonprofit?

8:08 – Shari Chaney Jones They want a fun place to be where they feel loved and accepted and, you know, are engaged and their cultural needs are met. They don’t care that your organization’s mission is to increase social-emotional learning or positive youth development skills. So you can see how we’re already now we’ve got three different things for, we want to make sure we’re hitting our missions, we need to be measuring all three of these. So we do the five wise exercise to help us now know when we’re talking about impact, those wise are the impact and that’s what you should be measuring.

8:43 – Shari Chaney Jones So that’s where you start, start with the five wise.

8:46 – Hugh Ballou You know, Thomas and I put the book, I think it’s begin with why or start with why. Often we skip over the why, we talk about what. We feed people, we do that. And really, it’s important to start with that why. So that’s a really good exercise. Thank you for sharing that with us. So the data. Data is important. Sometimes we make up things. So having verifiable data, I mean, we want things to work so badly. Maybe we’re not applying, but we see the best. But the data is pretty hard, hard-nosed.

9:24 – Hugh Ballou This is what it really looks like, But that data reminds us of the The information we need to create our story. How do you create an impact story that’s going to make a difference in how people perceive your work?

9:41 – Shari Chaney Jones Yeah, so we believe you should have three sources of data to tell an impactful story. You need to be able to talk about what you do and who you serve, which most nonprofits have a handle of They can tell me how many people they serve, but they should then have some data about who those people are. Whether it’s basic demographic or geographic locations or something unique about their situation. So that’s the first, that’s like the basic level, right? Those are what we call outputs.

10:13 – Shari Chaney Jones What did you do and who did you serve? The second would be how well did you do it? And so these are more of your quality metrics related to whether it’s timeliness, cultural responsibility, client experience, making sure, again, those participants-wise are being met. And then the 3rd type of data is how are people or communities better off? So that’s where those are more of your outcomes, your impact data. Did you increase financial stability or social, emotional skills or get people jobs or stably?

10:46 – Shari Chaney Jones How’s them whatever your mission is? How do you quantify how people and communities are better off? So, when you have those 3 types of data. What did you do? Who did you do it for? How well did you do it? And how people are better off? Now we can put together a very powerful impact statement when talking to donors and funders.

11:07 – Hugh Ballou So when you’re talking to nonprofits, who are you speaking with? The leader, the clergy, the executive director, the president? Who are you speaking with?

11:16 – Shari Chaney Jones Who am I speaking with? Well, impact measurement is a team sport. Which is really exciting because obviously the leadership and the executive teams are going to be a consumer of impact measurement to make decisions, make budgeting, communicate to their boards, communicate to their funders. And so that’s how they’re going to be consumers of impact measurement. But then the program managers or the directors of programming they’re going to use impact measurement to improve operations to hold their staff accountable.

11:54 – Shari Chaney Jones Line staff are going to use impact measurement to guide their operations and record what they’re doing. So that’s what’s so fun about impact measurement is that each person in an organization has a different need for using this data for their jobs.

12:14 – Hugh Ballou There’s people listening to this podcast where our audience is not private leaders, but it would include board members. You Donors supporters would include clergy and their team. So people are listening to the podcast. Some are seeing it on a video, but if you listen to the podcast, you can’t see the sherry’s passion. Maybe she’s obviously into this. And when she speaks about it, she’s very animated. She says it’s fun. She models that. So, that’s an inspiration in itself. So.

12:43 – Hugh Ballou Data. So go back to the team sport. Yeah, I’m in the South. We say none of us is as smart as all of us. So that learning to share this is part of a challenge of a leader who wants to do it all. They don’t want to bother people. So bringing people into that conversation. So tell us a little bit about how that works. That’s fascinating. And you’re right. There’s so many things that are team sport. I’m glad to hear you label it that way.

13:09 – Shari Chaney Jones Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. And I think sometimes I get jealous of my friends who are fundraising consultants because they only have to really talk to the fundraisers. Whereas when we’re doing our work, it’s like, no, I have to get the board on board, the leadership on board, the program team on board, down to the you know, caseworker that’s in the field working every single day with the participants, right? But it’s important. It’s so important because impact measurement is essentially measuring why your organization exists.

13:53 – Shari Chaney Jones It’s the reason you exist and you need to put data around it so you can move the needle forward on those key topics. And so how we get everyone on board is those Five Wise Exercises is bringing everyone together and asking them to do the five wise exercise together. And you’ll be amazed you, you could bring 30 people in a room that have all worked for the same organization for five years and you won’t get the same wise. It’s fascinating. Wow. So that’s going to be a win in itself. Once everyone kind of gets on the same page and it’s like, Oh yeah, that’s why we exist.

14:31 – Shari Chaney Jones That’s what we’re trying to do. And then once you, then once you’ve got that framework developed, adding the metrics to it, um, isn’t that difficult, especially now with technology. And so now you’re just kind of, this is how we’re going to record it so that we can analyze it to tell our story.

14:51 – Hugh Ballou Well, in this, it would seem to me there’d be a challenge on what is it that you’re going to measure? What are you going to measure and does it matter? So speak about what are you measuring and specifically. I know we’ve talked about impact and I’m going to consider my age and mental condition,

15:10 – Hugh Ballou Go over that a little more detail. What are we why?

15:14 – Shari Chaney Jones Yeah, so, I mean, we talked a little bit about, of course, you’re going to measure. You know, who you served and what they are and their demographics of the people. So I’ll try to break down and, like, really tangible ways. So you should be tracking. The demographics of the people you serve. And then you should be tracking the services that they receive and the types of services and number of hours. And then for each program that a nonprofit does, they should have a set of measurable outcomes, which is you take those Y’s and you identify, you know, so if a Y is because we want to increase wages of our participants, then you should be measuring wages at the beginning of engagement and at the end.

15:59 – Shari Chaney Jones We want to increase social-emotional learning of the people we serve, then there should be a way to assess, you know, there’s a lot of validated tools out there that assess one’s social-emotional learning and measure it at the beginning and at the end. A lot of nonprofit outcomes do come from surveys, so I always like to give listeners or participants, you know, it’s okay if you’re getting that information through a self-report meetings from those you serve, but After all, the census is a survey, so surveys are an appropriate way to measure more psychological constructs.

16:34 – Shari Chaney Jones But it’s whatever that tangible thing is that you say your mission is, you should have a way to measure it and be managing to it.

16:42 – Hugh Ballou So, that’s great. That’s great. Thank you for breaking it down for me. The, when you start a project. A good time to define the data that in the systems that you’re going to measure at the end. Right?

16:56 – Shari Chaney Jones Yep. Yes. You should, yeah, I mean, I think the nonprofits you are new or emerging or beginning, they have, they likely are in a better position because they’re starting from scratch and can create impact measurement as part of their program design. But we work with, I didn’t even mention I wrote a book on this. Yeah, so in 2014, I published a book called impact and excellence. And that’s where we, we kind of outline. You know, everything that I’m talking about today, but also what we found is that there was no correlation between the size of an organization and their budget and their ability to create impact measurement.

17:43 – Hugh Ballou Love it love it love it. So let’s talk about the What are some things that leaders need to keep in mind when they’re creating or using their impact stories? You’ve measured the data, you’ve created your story, and maybe there’s a different twist on the story for a different audience. What are some things we need to keep in mind when they use the stories to support their fundraising efforts?

18:08 – Shari Chaney Jones Yeah, so I think when you think about, that’s why it’s really important to do that, why do your funders want to fund you? So you will hopefully you have you’ve done that exercise so you understand, you know, the government funder is interested in maybe how is your nonprofit saving taxpayer dollars. The maybe you’re looking for funding from a faith based funder. Who might be more interested in the you know, kind of the engagement in church activities or some other community. So you’re going to tell them a different story than you’re going to tell the government funder.

18:48 – Shari Chaney Jones It’s the same data you’re using. You’re just going to pull different data out based on who you’re talking to. So making sure you understand your audiences and matching your data-driven story with that particular funder’s wise.

19:05 – Hugh Ballou Matching it with that funders wise. So that means you need to know who about your funder.

19:11 – Shari Chaney Jones Absolutely. Yeah. And if you find that you have a funder that you’re chasing, and frankly, let’s all admit nonprofits often face chase funders, but you realize that their wise aren’t aligned with your nonprofits wise, then you probably should Find another funder.

19:33 – Hugh Ballou Absolutely. Absolutely. Maybe even referring that funder to another nonprofit, which they would get you some points because if they’re not really interested in what you’re doing, why keep them?

19:46 – Shari Chaney Jones Well, yeah. And there’s, you know, I tell a story about, I have a friend who’s an executive director of an arts organization, a great arts organization. And she knew that one, another big funder was one of our clients. And she came to me, she said, I write a grant for them every single year and I never get funding. What am I doing wrong? And I said, well, their thesis is very, very thick. They only fund organizations who keep kids in their own homes. And can measure how they’re increasing family housing stability.

20:17 – Shari Chaney Jones I said, I don’t think your arts organization does that. And she’s like, no, I don’t. And I said, well, you’re lucky they have been giving you funding because if you did, you’d have to totally redesign your program to be an affordable, like a housing stability program when you’re an arts organization. And so I think understanding that funders wise and what they’re passionate about is really important.

20:40 – Hugh Ballou That’s really good advice, because we get so sometimes blinded with our passion for doing good that we forget that not everybody wants to do exactly what we want to do. So you’ve given us a lot of things to think about. So let’s kind of bring home some strategies for how do we implement some of these data impact strategies and process measurements? How do we inspire our teams and make it easier for them to do? And maybe it’s a byproduct of what they’re already doing.

21:10 – Shari Chaney Jones Yep, well, that’s the key. I think there’s a few things. One, I think we need to recognize that fear is going to be, any change management, obviously, moving to a culture of impact-centric focus with data at the center is a change management process. And especially when we add measures, we’re adding the level of accountability, which will generate fear. And so I think recognizing that is really important. So, in your change management process, as you’re moving to create these cultures, kind of call it, if you’re the leader and you’re initiating this, like, call it out and say, like, I understand that you might not want to say the word fear, but I understand that measuring this type of information is new to us as a culture, as a staff, and we’re using this data for continuous improvement and continuous learning.

22:05 – Shari Chaney Jones Because when you create a culture of data and you use it from a punitive perspective, that’s when weird things happen in an organization. So I think it’s really important that you start this process from, we’re doing this for continuous improvement, continuous learning. Not in a negative or punitive way. So I think it’s important to start there. That helps buy in. Also make sure that you’re incorporating the data collection as the course of your staff is doing business. And that’s where technology can really help us these days, is if your staff are just doing their work every single day, recording what they need to record, and letting technology take that data and analyze it for you, Um, then it’s really not an extra thing.

22:49 – Shari Chaney Jones It’s just doing it’s part of the workflow. It’s just part of how you do your job.

22:53 – Hugh Ballou You haven’t said this, but I’m guessing since you are a fun person that there’s a spin on it that you put that. It’s a celebration when you meet your targets. Absolutely. It’s an inspiration and I think that 1st, you know, making that 1st success is attainable.

23:11 – Shari Chaney Jones Oh, sure.

23:12 – Hugh Ballou Would change the whole picture. So, you mentioned a book, so I’m going to tell people about your website. So, the website is sure impact dot net sure impact. Oh, com, excuse me. Yeah. Your email was net, I’m.

23:24 – Shari Chaney Jones Com, sure, impact com, Sorry. Yeah, .net is the actual product site, but .com is the information site.

23:33 – Hugh Ballou So, it’s Sure, it’s for sure, Now, here’s the book. Is this the book you mentioned?

23:40 – Shari Chaney Jones That is a, that is a new book that I’ve just recently wrote my original book impact and excellence was published by Josie Bass in 2014.

23:51 – Hugh Ballou Will we find that on your website?

23:54 – Shari Chaney Jones You might not even find that on this website.

23:58 – Hugh Ballou Okay, but here’s a free book.

23:59 – Hugh Ballou Yes, that’s a free book. People want to do this step-by-step guide for leveraging technology to track, measure, and communicate your unique, that’s a good word, impact. Why should people get that?

24:13 – Shari Chaney Jones Well, because that is basically, we know that impact measurement is daunting for most nonprofit leaders. And this is, like it says, the step-by-step guide, everything you need to do. And also learn how in 2023 or four, whenever you’re listening to this, we are in an amazing time in history where we can have technology, affordable and easy to use technology to help us have our impact measurement data at our fingertips. And we’ll talk a lot about how the role of technology in creating an impact measurement culture.

24:45 – Hugh Ballou You got somebody in Cherry that loves to do this, as you can see in her face. So what else will people find when they go to your website?

24:52 – Shari Chaney Jones So when you go to our website, you will see, if you go to our resources page, we love education and training. So in addition to the guide you already mentioned, we have videos, we have webinars, we have a blog. So we love to educate our audience on impact measurement, because we know it’s new, but it is the wave of the future, and it’s how, it’s the secret sauce to raising more money and creating real and lasting social change. You’ll also learn a lot about the Sure Impact platform.

25:22 – Shari Chaney Jones We’ve got interactive demos and tours that will help you see how Sure Impact can help you quickly and easily create a measurement culture within your organization.

25:35 – Hugh Ballou There’s a, there’s a tour here, watch, watch now and you can come in and that it’s a 2 way conversation. Some people are afraid to put their emails in, but I bet you’re going to be respectful and not spam people. Right?

25:48 – Shari Chaney Jones No, no, we just want to stay in touch and They have questions about impact measurement.

25:55 – Hugh Ballou Well, you made this fun, and the time just has flown by. We try to keep things at about this limit. And so before we stop here, is there some challenge or thought you want to leave with people today?

26:09 – Shari Chaney Jones Well, I think it’s a great day to be having this conversation here because it is Giving Tuesday. And so think about the annual report that you wrote this year for your annual end of year campaign. And ask yourself, could we tell a year’s worth of outcomes data for our clients? Do we know quantifiably how we make people better off? If the answer is no, it is the perfect time to implement that in 2024. So at this time next year, you can say, yes, I was able to quantifiably define my impact in 2024.

26:48 – Hugh Ballou Love it. You’re inspired now. And you can get up your game by next year this time or before. Sherry Cheney-Jones, you’ve been a delightful guest on the Nonprofit Exchange. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

27:00 – Shari Chaney Jones Thank you so much.

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