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Nonprofit Impact Measurement and the Sustainable Development Goals

By January 6, 2020

Nonprofit Impact Measurement

By: Brian Komar, VP, Global Impact Engagement, and Eric Barela, Director, Measurement and Evaluation,

Pause for a moment and ask yourself this question… what if most every nation in the entire world got together and agreed on an agenda to make the world a better place and they included a set of specific indicators that would represent progress for humanity and the planet? That would be pretty awesome, right?

That is precisely what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent and for that reason alone, they warrant both our attention and our respect.

The SDG Framework

The SDG framework consists of 17 goals with a global focus on people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. The specific goals are:

  • 1-No Poverty
  • 2-Zero Hunger
  • 3-Good Health and Well-Being
  • 4-Quality Education
  • 5-Gender Equality
  • 6-Clean Water and Sanitation
  • 7-Affordable and Clean Energy
  • 8-Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 9-Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • 10-Reduced Inequalities
  • 11-Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • 12- Responsible Consumption and Production
  • 13-Climate Action
  • 14-Life Below Water
  • 15-Life on Land
  • 16-Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  • 17-Partnerships for the Goals

The SDGs serve as common goals to address in pursuit of a better world. The goals were designed with reporting rolling-up to national governments who in turn would roll-up reporting from other levels of government, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations working toward the goals.

Supporting the 17 goals are 232 unique indicators designed around 169 specific targets. These indicators are meant to guide standardized, collective measurement of global development progress.

What are the SDGs?

A Helpful Starting Point for Impact Measurement

By establishing a framework, the SDGs are a helpful starting point. While many social sector organizations can and are measuring themselves against the SDGs, some are not and cannot. The designated targets and indicators may not align to some organizations’ work. While the SDGs are expansive, they do not (and arguably, are not meant to) cover every possible mission from all types of social sector organizations. The SDGs ultimately promote sustainable development. The unifying thread throughout the SDGs is the commitment to ending poverty. The 2030 UN Agenda notes that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.

Deeper Understanding is Needed: Indicators and Targets for Impact Measurement

This highlights another issue with understanding the SDGs. By focusing on the titles of the SDGs – the heart of the SDGs, the indicators and targets, are often overlooked. Too many organizations are merely defining the SDGs at the highest, most general level and are not going deeper to learn about the more detailed indicators and targets that make up each goal. There needs to be increased understanding about how the SDGs are being measured. We fear that many organizations currently think they’re doing SDG-aligned work and will be disappointed when they try to reconcile their work with the indicators and targets. This need for deeper understanding makes sense since the SDG framework is only several years old. Increased understanding should come with time.

It is also important to note that the SDG framework, while expansive, is not the only impact reporting framework out there. There are literally dozens of other frameworks that are useful for tracking social impact. By combining multiple reporting frameworks, organizations should be able to see most of their outcomes represented in global social impact efforts.

To Measure Impact, Get Data and Build Capacity

Despite the relative newness of the SDG framework, there is incredibly impressive momentum around the world toward promoting them. There are, however, some real challenges ahead. According to the SDG Index and Dashboards Report (2018), progress toward sustainable consumption and production patterns is too slow and inequalities in economic and social outcomes require better data.

As measurement increasingly becomes the default, those unable to generate evidence risk being locked out of opportunities to participate. There is an urgent need among all sectors, most notably philanthropy and government, to support interventions to immediately build capacity so that smaller organizations and those representing marginalized populations do not find themselves on the wrong side of the impact management divide.

What Nonprofits Can Do to Align to the SDGs

Given the incredible promise and potential challenges of the SDG framework, we have identified three steps you can take to help ensure your organization’s work embraces the SDGs when appropriate:

  1. Start by Starting – The most important thing is to just get started. Make the commitment for your organization to lead with impact. Choose and report on the outcomes you seek to advance by consistently engaging key stakeholders and developing logic models, measurement plans, data collection and analysis, and reporting.
  2. Default to the SDGs When Appropriate – Leverage the SDGs as a starting point for your impact measurement and reporting efforts. They are incredibly helpful guideposts. Rather than being a 100% snowflake unable to align with others on indicators and outcomes, test your logic models against the SDGs. Maybe you’re only a 50% snowflake.
  3. Invest – Start preparing by investing in the knowledge, staff, and tools necessary for your organization to succeed in the impact-first future. New impact measurement muscles are required.

How Foundations and Donors Can Align to The SDGs

Grantmakers have an important role to play to accelerate the adoption of the SDGs, so we can align our efforts to greater impact. Here are three steps all funders can take to make sure your portfolio is aligned to the SDG framework:

  1. Lead by Example – Leverage the SDGs as the reporting framework for your foundation’s activities. Align on the goals and help to foster greater collaboration to achieve them together.
  2. Build Capacity in Nonprofits You Fund – Help ensure the impact management divide does not transpire; support measurement, evaluation and learning training, education, staffing capacity generally and in particular for smaller organizations and those representing traditionally marginalized population. Require that those you support with funding incorporate the SDGs – and give them the resources (operating funds!) to do so. This is an important area: according to the Nonprofit Trends 2018 Report, technology is still not being funded as a strategic resource. 59% of organizations relying on just one funding source to cover IT costs, and 14% with no tech budget whatsoever. You can help change this.
  3. New Systems and Tools – Support the development and expansion of solutions that make impact measurement easier and that include roll up findings at the organizational level and the country level. Again, ensure a commitment to the SDGs comes with your support. Don’t leave nonprofits holding the bag to figure it out themselves: better reporting requires easy to use systems. Sadly, according to the Nonprofit Trends 2018 Report, only 8% of nonprofits have used technology to completely automate reporting on program effectiveness. And for 42% of organizations, reporting impact back to donors is a completely manual process.
  4. New Collaboration Incentives – The true value of the SDGs lies not in the reporting framework itself, but in the ability to unleash a new wave of collaboration across sectors by aligning on common goals and indicators and reporting on progress towards them. Current incentive, however, do not often support collaboration so incentives need to be realigned toward collective impact initiatives. Collaborative data sharing systems e.g., data trusts and data coops also require support.

In the arc of human history, the SDGs are an incredibly powerful step toward building a better world for ourselves and for those who follow us. They deserve our effort to work toward making them a reality. It is critical that this happens in a way that brings us together rather than by reinforcing existing inequities. Those in philanthropy must make investments today to ensure that all can participate in the efforts to create a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable world.

Share what you’re doing to advance the SDGs on Twitter by using the hashtag #SDGforce!