In my experience, almost every nonprofit thinks their mission is harder to measure than most. I sometimes give presentations on performance measurement that include case studies. And no matter how many organizations I show that have defined metrics to measure core, mission-related programs, I still hear from people who think that the examples I give are of organizations with much more straightforward missions than theirs.

That’s backward thinking, in my mind. The example missions feel more straightforward because they’ve been broken down into concrete chunks that are more manageable. This applies to any mission—if you break yours down too, you’ll hopefully find yourself saying, “Hmm… maybe my mission isn’t too hard to measure after all.”

Here are seven steps to help you make your mission more clear and translate that mission into actionable metrics.

1. Write it out.
In a sentence or two, write out your fuzzy mission. It could be an actual mission statement or tagline. It could cover your whole organization or a single program. So let’s say:

2. Identify the fuzziness.
Circle all the words that aren’t completely clear. Where could you add some—or a lot—of clarity as to what this means to your organization?

3. Define.
For each of the circled words, define what it means to your organization. How do you define a “volunteer”? Are they mid-career professionals? High school kids? How do you know if a volunteer is “engaged”? If they show up once, are they engaged, or do they need to commit to a longer-term activity?

This isn’t an easy step. In fact, it could be the subject of a whole retreat. Often, we use words in fuzzy ways in our mission, but in practice they could mean something pretty specific. For instance, this mission could describe either an organization that was pairing high school and college kids with mentors with the goal of creating life-long supporters of the environmental movement, or one that was placing retired professionals in environmental organizations for long-term engagements to strengthen their capacity. Clearly, the way these two organizations would define their terms—and therefore measure their missions—would be very different.

4. Brainstorm measures.
For each of your clarified terms, brainstorm things that might tell you whether you’re doing that successfully. For instance, if we’re trying to measure whether we have successfully engaged high school volunteers, we could:

  • Count the number of times they show up.
  • Count hours.
  • Ask the volunteer if they feel connected to the mission.
  • Ask the organization if they feel the volunteer is contributing.
  • Using a rubric, assign a number to the quality of the project the volunteer and organization are doing together.
  • Follow up in a year to see if anything actually happened as a result of the volunteer work.

5. Brainstorm tactics to get that data.
You’ve got a list of a lot of things that could be measured, but not necessarily ones that are at all practical to measure. Take some time to do the opposite brainstorm—what tactics could you use to collect your data? For instance, could you survey one of your audiences? Pull data from existing constituent management systems? Count things in other systems—such as email inquiries or appointments with legislators? Is there public data that could help?

6. Find a few metrics to start with.
To get the metrics process rolling, pick a few metrics that seem both useful and practical—ideally ones that rely on data you have already.

7. Use the metrics.
It sounds obvious, but if you don’t actually pull the metrics and use them—perhaps in a recurring meeting, or as part of a standard decision-making process—then they’re not useful. It can be a bit strange to start, as you often have little basis of comparison (e.g., What does it mean that 80% of volunteers feel they’re making a difference?) But over time, you can see that number change and get comfortable with what it means to your mission.

Fundamentally, the goal is to break down your fuzzy mission into actionable chunks, figure out how to move forward on a chunk, and get started. Perfect is absolutely the enemy of the good in this area. Start somewhere, do something, and don’t worry if you have the perfect set of metrics to measure everything.