5 Types of Nonprofits and Their Measures of Success


Most people think of measurement in the nonprofit sector as a pretty simple affair: A charity does an event, brings in a pile of money, and “Ta-da!” that’s success. But, as with all other things measurement, it’s much more complex than that.

First of all, just because you claim nonprofit status, it doesn’t mean you don’t make a profit. FIFA is a nonprofit and brought in some $141 million in profit last year.

And among charitable organizations that bring in low or no profits, there is a wide range of goals and objectives—and therefore measurement requirements. I’m sure y’all can come up with more categories, but here are some of the ones I’ve seen. See the table at the end for a summary of types of nonprofits and metrics.

1. Foundations, a.k.a. Grantors

Foundations are generally started by philanthropists who have earned, raised, or inherited money and now want to do good in the world. Think Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, etc. Generally they have a reputation to maintain and a message to communicate, so when they think communications measurement, they are looking to track reputation, messaging, and awareness of the key themes and messages they’re trying to get across.

They are required to give away a certain percentage of their income each year. The money goes to different organizations (grantees) with the expectation that it will be used to make a positive difference in the world. So from the grantees they generally require metrics that measure the societal change that the money they’ve given out is supposed to produce. For themselves, they want measurement of their reputation and whether their key messages are gaining traction.

2. Grantees

For professional communicators working for charitable organizations that have received grants, defining metrics is a bigger challenge. They can’t just measure “messages” or “likes,” they need to first define the connection between communications and the desired social change.

Let’s take, for example, a charitable organization like Rotary International, which has as one of its missions the eradication of polio. There is no way you’re going to produce a press release or a Tweet that can be directly tied to wiping polio off the planet. Instead, communications efforts contribute to the eradication effort by raising awareness of the problem, attracting donors, bringing in attendees for fundraising events, and generating traffic to the fundraising parts of its website. So one outcome metric might be traffic to the Thank You page which is served up anytime an individual makes a contribution.

3. NGOs and Advocacy Groups

Many nonprofit organizations are founded to advocate in support of a law or a societal issue. These advocacy groups have their own unique metrics as well. If you take organizations such as the ACLU, 350.org, or the local land conservancy, the metrics for their communications team revolve around getting the word out about their issues.

So, for example, one metric might be whether a story or a blog post leaves a reader more or less likely to support the cause or whether an item of content contains the key messages or themes the communications team is trying to get across. Another might be the number of people who sign a petition or write a letter to local elected officials. Yet another might be the number of people who show up at a rally or an event. Ideally these groups will braid information together to show correlations to communications efforts the way ASPCA did here and USO did here.

4. Associations

Industry and trade associations are yet another type of nonprofit with even more specific metrics. Many of these are membership organizations and thus their measures of success will be focused on either growing membership or improving relationships with the members. Organizations like the American Society of Plastic Surgeons keep careful track of key messagespositioning statements, and quotes about their members. Read the full case history here.

5. Fundraising vs. Fundraisers

Finally, there is the issue of measuring fundraising vs. fundraisers. We frequently get called in to measure the impact of fundraising efforts, only to find out that in fact the real issue is the newly hired person in charge of fundraising who may or may not be meeting expectations. Equally frequently we find that communications has little or no involvement with fundraising efforts, which primarily involve direct one-on-one discussions with potential donors and the new hire. That isn’t a measurement problem, that is a people management and HR problem, and one we don’t have an easy metric for. Our recommendations are to set realistic goals and quotas, talk frequently, and if nothing is happening after the agreed amount of probationary time, then cut your losses and move on.

Type of Nonprofit OrganizationMetrics Typically Used
Foundations a.k.a. Grantors-- Measures of the societal change they promised their funders
Grantees-- Awareness of the problem
-- Attracting donors
-- Attendees for fundraising events
-- Traffic to the fundraising parts of website
NGOs and Advocacy Groups-- Does an item of content leave a reader more or less likely to support the cause?
-- Does an item of content contain key messages?
-- Number of people who sign a petition or write a letter to local elected officials
-- Number of people who show up at a rally or an event
Associations-- Key messages
-- Positioning statements
-- Quotes about their members
Fundraising vs. Fundraisers--(Reread #5)

And for more useful information pertaining to measurement in the nonprofit sector, check the book I co-authored with Beth Kanter: Measuring the Network Nonprofit

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.