Why nonprofits should measure impact through SMS

Remember when you had to pay 50 cents for every text message you sent? Or you had a plan that only allowed 200 text messages per month?

Those days are long gone —the average person now checks their phone 52 times a day. That’s at least twice an hour. In addition, 96% of adults own cell phones and 81% of those people have smartphones.  Times really have changed.

21st Century Outreach

It’s the 21st century and the growth of smartphones and texting has changed how we function. So, why do we still receive paper and email surveys asking about our experience with an event or program? There are a thousand answers to this question, but if you are a nonprofit still using google forms or paper handouts to distribute surveys we know where the problem lies.

Big tech companies spend millions of dollars each year on collecting data, usually through their digital apps or products. They also spend on full teams who design, build, and push out surveys through multiple means. These companies and even large nonprofits have the resources (money) and capacity (team) to do this. The philanthropic sector has provided very limited grants, funding, and technical assistance to nonprofits for better data collection. Yet, the expectation is for every nonprofit to have stellar annual reports. 

There is the catch 22. Nonprofits need an efficient and free tool to collect data. That’s where we came in with our SMS survey tool, co:census.

But why a SMS survey? Why not paper or form?


Paper Survey

Google Form

SMS Survey


Handout at event

Email or social media campaign

Outreach campaign. Increases responses by 250%


A team member will need to enter all the responses into a spreadsheet or database

Automated, so all responses go into a spreadsheet

Automated, so all responses go into a database real time

Data Visualizations

A team member will need to create charts in a spreadsheet or use an existing tool like Tableau

A team member will need to create charts in a spreadsheet or use an existing tool like Tableau

Automated, created and added to a report


A team member will need to design a report with all the data & visualizations and share this with the team.

A team member will need to design a report with all the data & visualizations and share this with the team.

Automated, emailed to your inbox weekly

3 Use Cases for SMS Data Collection

With less resources and capacity needed to collect, analyze, and visualize the data you can see why SMS surveys are our clear answer. The next important piece is how can SMS be usedWhat data should you collect? What questions should you ask?

There are three core things every nonprofit need: great annual reports, the ability to measure the success of their programs, and a method of understanding what the communities they serve actually need. 

Annual Reports
Your annual report has to paint a visual picture of your organization. The annual report is more than a document, it’s a case that goes to your community, donors, and board members that shows how much progress has been achieved towards your vision. Without concrete data or quotes, you cannot tell a compelling story about your organization’s impact. 

With an SMS survey, you can engage your audience to text message after every program and event throughout the year to collect data. Tracking responses on how participants in your program have been impacted over time showcases a great story for your organization. Consider this use case: a local food pantry wants to collect data for their annual report to understand if their organization has had an impact on the community’s health. 

Questions like “What are the fresh food options in your neighborhood?” and “In what way has fresh food changed your health?” can give you concrete points about how you have impacted communities.


Measuring Program Success
Most nonprofits want to know how successful their programs are each year. While you can measure this with quantitative data (number of participants or length of time in a program), getting qualitative information is critical to adding context to these numbers.

Consider this use case: a restorative justice program wants to understand the conditions under which their program participants feel successful.

Include text message questions like “How do you define success?” and “Based on your definition, do you feel successful exiting this program?” can give you direct quotes that can add context. In addition, responses to these questions can highlight existing trends indicating where and how success is defined and felt.


Understanding participant needs 
There is nothing more important than making sure you understand what your community needs from you. Whether your mission is to deliver fresh food or connect youth to outstanding opportunities, it will be hard to achieve it without understanding the problems they experience daily. Surveys can ask questions about the conditions or experiences of participants to create stronger programs. These responses can also encourage more empathy from your team!

Consider this use case: an after school program launched a new STEM gaming activity but no kids are engaged, yet all of the kids usually love games. Asking questions such as “What time do you wake up for school?” and “How many hours do you play games each week?” give you insights into this student’s day and interests. These are user sentiments —data points big tech companies pay a lot for because it helps them design based on responses. 

So, we hope you found this guide and tips helpful. As big advocates for the public sector, we would love to support your mission by signing up for our SMS survey tool for free so you can get your audience text messaging you in real time. Check out our plans here. 

Want to learn more about data and impact measurement?