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Our Fall Semester Assignment: Measuring the Impact of Our Work

Though my last semester of graduate school ended 10 years ago, this time of year always leaves me pining for the promise of a fresh start and the pursuit of knowledge.

It could be that I’m still conditioned to follow the educational calendar of my youth, or just that I find it easier to get motivated when the heat and humidity of the D.C. summer subsides. Whatever the cause, I’ve been thinking about ways we can use the structure and excitement of a fall semester to ensure we are delivering the best possible work for our clients. To do so requires a new way to think about measuring our success as a company.

Since Forum One’s founding nearly 20 years ago, we have been committed to serving mission-focused organizations. Nearly 100 percent of our work is for nonprofit and government organizations who exist to serve the public good in some fashion. And we’ve had great success by any number of common business metrics — we’ve grown from three Kennedy School graduates in a basement to a full-service staff of 90 in offices spanning the U.S. and Europe; we’ve worked with several organizations as trusted advisors for nearly a decade or more; and, we routinely earn high client satisfaction scores.

That’s all good news, and it suggests we’ve been delivering great work for our clients. But how do we know if — through this work — we are actually helping our clients advance their missions?

Set Up a Framework to Measure Your Success

We’ve always pushed ourselves and our clients to think strategically about their digital communications efforts, and more recently we’ve been expanding our analytics capabilities to help our clients define and measure success online. Now’s the time for us to use that framework to start consistently measuring the success of the solutions that we craft for our clients, and evaluating our own success — at least in part — by how well and directly our work supports our clients’ missions.

Doing so effectively requires a partnership on every project. Both Forum One and our clients must:

  • define goals that relate back to mission as closely as possible,
  • use these goals to drive decisions about design, messaging, functionality, platforms, etc.,
  • set targets and ensure we have systems in place to measure and report on success, and
  • modify our solutions and approach based on data to optimize results

I admit the tasks above are easier said than done. Working primarily in digital communications, we have the unique benefit of painting on an inherently measurable canvas: the web. But we also face the daunting challenge of an overwhelming amount of data that, on its own, often tells us very little about mission impact.

Stay Focused on Your Mission

Given this sometimes-paralyzing situation, here’s my recommendation: pick one metric for your project that most closely aligns with your mission and commit to measuring it as best you can. Just one. You can add more over time. Maybe something that is relatively easy to track, e.g., funds raised online for bednets to prevent malaria, or petitions signed to expand background checks at gun shows. Perhaps it is more difficult to measure, e.g., raising awareness about combating non-communicable diseases in developing countries, or improving international cooperation on refugee crises. Maybe you’ll need to develop a survey, or pair the qualitative and quantitative data available to get a sense of your impact.

Whatever the case, don’t be discouraged by strict research methodologies or the question, “how much of this impact can we really take credit for?” There’s a place for that kind of rigorous, sound research, but we often don’t have the luxuries of time, money, and expertise to apply it to our everyday communications work. It’s better to measure something in good faith as a proxy for your impact – even with its known flaws – than to measure nothing at all.

As part of this effort, Forum One is going to more formally track impact across our work. As the data become available, we’ll report to you on how we’re doing this semester.

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