Communications professionals often cringe at the thought of measuring and evaluating the impact of communications, especially in philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. While it’s easy to measure program-related investments — such as grant dollars spent or health services provided — evaluating the impact of your communications is trickier. How do you know if the content and activities you spend so much time (and money) on are actually making a difference?

The first step in effective measurement and evaluation is to set measurable goals and objectives up front. Our team at Hattaway Communications uses four simple steps to help organizations set specific, meaningful and measureable goals for their communications, whether they have a dedicated communications staff or a team of volunteers on a shoestring budget.

1) Clarify goals. The first and most important step is starting with a clear, ambitious goal: What are you trying to achieve? Be as specific as you can. The Packard Foundation, for example, wants all of the adults in children’s lives to have the tools, resources and support they need to provide children with safe, healthy environments to learn and grow.

2) Prioritize audiences. Once you have a clear goal in mind, map out exactly who your audiences are. Take a step back and brainstorm a list of all of the people who can help you achieve your goal. Again, be specific: “The media” is not an audience, but reporters covering a particular beat or media market are. The Packard Foundation, for example, needs to engage partners in government, service providers, educators, parents and caregivers to achieve their goal.

Remember that audiences can also be internal to your organization. If you need buy-in from your Board of Directors on a new initiative, the board is an audience.

To prioritize which audiences to focus on in the short term vs. the long term, ask: “How can they help us achieve our goal?” In Packard’s case, federal policymakers might be able to establish and fund programs that would provide caregivers with information and resources on promoting healthy development from ages 0–5. Depending on resources and the current political environment, however, they may want to concentrate on an audience that can effect more immediate change, such as healthcare providers who can meet caregivers and provide information one-on-one.

3) Set communications objectives. Next, think about what communications can do to help you achieve your goal — and what it can’t. Communications can be held accountable for achieving three outcomes, all of which are measurable: raising awareness, changing attitudes, and motivating people to take action. For instance, communications alone can’t ensure all children start school healthy and ready to learn, but it can raise awareness about the scope of the problem, encourage people to care about fixing it, and show them what to do about it.

You can use a simple framework, called the Road Map to Impact, to assess where your audiences are along the path from awareness to action. It helps you systematically evaluate the current state of your audiences and set specific objectives for each that will help to achieve your communications goal.

For example, many educators are aware that all children should be prepared for school at age six, and know about the problem of vocabulary and achievement gaps. They also care deeply about ensuring opportunity for every child. However, if they don’t understand how providing support for the adults in children’s lives helps to solve this problem, your communications need to explain adults’ role in creating environments that promote healthy development. Once audiences understand the problem and solution, they can then be motivated to take action.

4) Establish meaningful metrics. With a clear goal, audience, and objective, setting meaningful communications metrics becomes straightforward. If you’re trying to raise awareness of the importance of reading to children ages 0–5 among low-income parents, regular surveys can measure changes in their awareness over time. If you’re trying to get healthcare providers to take a specific action, such as providing information on healthy brain development to parents, you can track the number of providers involved in the information dissemination campaign and how many materials they use.

No matter your organization’s resources, there are ways to track and evaluate whether your communications are having an impact. If you don’t have the budget for regular surveys, you can conduct focus groups or informal roundtable discussions with members of your target audiences to see how their awareness and attitudes are shifting. You can also conduct secondary research through media analysis to evaluate shifts in the public conversation that reflect increased awareness and supportive attitudes toward your issue. To continue the early childhood education example, a comprehensive media analysis could measure how many times the importance of supporting adults in children’s lives is mentioned in coverage and commentary.

Evaluating communications can seem like a daunting task, especially for smaller organizations. Following these four steps will help you communicate strategically and ensure that you’re measuring the right things at the right times. Not only will this make your Board of Directors happy by justifying their bottom line, it can improve your real bottom line: making the world a better place.