Reboot Your Approach to Outcomes Measurement

graph-249937_640Outcomes measurement in the nonprofit sector needs a reboot.  First off, the word “impact” should not cause stomachs, or any other body parts, to clench, shoulders to sag, or blood pressure to rise.  Second, measurement should not be viewed as a zero sum game – as in program directors are terrified that the sum of their outcomes will result in zero funding.  This kind of anxiety just creates extra obstacles, especially for the small-to-mid-size organizations that are trying to build capacity for program measurement and reporting.  Let’s shake off those fears and shake up how you approach outcomes.

You, yes YOU, get to drive the outcomes bus.

Unlike the pigeon from the 2003 children’s story, I say we should LET nonprofits drive this bus. You are the experts when it comes to your work. As experts, you define program success and require a regular flow of relevant information to ensure programs are operating in a way that enables them to achieve that success.  Outcomes are not just about looking backward; they help you plot a more informed course forward. I recommend David Grant’s The Social Profit Handbook as an excellent resource for mission-driven organizations struggling to assess their impact in accordance with more traditional sector standards.  He brings a new perspective to assessment that includes nonprofits taking back the power to define what success looks like. Talk about shaking up the status quo!

Bottom line, if you do not measure your program, you are letting someone else do that for you.  Don’t let the perceived value or understanding of your work be left solely up to other people’s business models, compliance checks, and anecdotes.

Your model matters.   

Unless you are just in the start–up phase, you likely have a program model or logic model of some kind. I hope it isn’t sitting undisturbed exactly where it was placed upon completion.  See, this document is the essence of your nonprofit. It should live, breathe, and change just as your nonprofit does.  These models display the elements of your programs and services, the reality that your organization operates in, and how the programs are expected to address the problem(s) driving your work.  At the most basic level, the model answers the questions: What’s the problem here?  What are we going to do? With what? And how?  What do we expect will happen?  If any of the answers to those questions change over time, the model should be updated and reviewed for internal consistency.

“Oh please,” you think, how can we shake up the sector when you are using phrases like “internal consistency?”  Well, here is where it gets a little bit radical. Not only do you define your success; you take the reins to design a measurement plan that will best fit your operations and resources.  Take that model off the shelf and transform it* into a strategic data collection plan, where activities (what you do) link to outcomes (the intended result), and are documented by indicators (measure to determine if outcome is being achieved.)  Add a timeline for the collection and reporting schedule, and BOOM – get measuring.

*Ok, this part gets technical, and it may be best to seek out training or technical assistance to take your group through this process. I’ve worked with clients who bring our team back in to monitor data collection and assist staff with reporting.  Still, it often comes as a surprise to sector professionals that they already have exactly what is needed to develop a measurement plan that provides useful information for service and program planning, not just for funding reports. No need to start at square one.

You say social impact; I say long-term outcome.

I have to admit, one of my favorite topics of discussion with colleagues of late is how to navigate the veritable scrum of terms associated with assessing impact. The concept of measuring program outcomes has become mistaken for the idea of demonstrating sweeping social impact. While long-term outcomes do refer to a change in a condition or status brought about by program activities, that is not synonymous with causing a wave of change in their region for the typical nonprofit.

Andrew Harding of the London School of Economics and Political Science wrote a blog post on the difference between these two results in human welfare research to challenge this interchangeable use of terms.  He describes an outcome as “a finite and often measurable change,” with a pre-defined reach and limited scope.  Impact on the other hand, “refers to a much broader effect – perhaps the effect information and advice had on ability to make an informed choice, empowerment or wider life experiences. Impact can be conceptualized as the longer term effect of an outcome.”     

I think much anxiety around outcomes can be attributed to this misconception; that long-term outcomes must be far-reaching and epic when in reality the change is only expected within the population that experienced your program. That said, leaders should absolutely challenge their organizations by setting ambitious long-term program goals. With a robust model, the condition-changing outcomes you aim to achieve will be in proportion to your program scope and the intensity of your resources.  You cannot control every factor, but you must have the fortitude to regularly examine the results of what you are doing.

Reboot your expectations around measurement.  Define success. Take ownership of your outcomes. 

Study: Online Revenue and Email Revenue Up for Nonprofit Organizations

The just released M+R Benchmarks Study 2016 (in collaboration with the Nonprofit Technology Network) contains lots of interesting data about the state of online fundraising and marketing among nonprofit organizations. Some highlights

  • Online revenue is up 19%.
  • Although email opens and click-throughs are down, email fundraising is up 25%, and among the 25 top performing  (dollars raised online)  study participants, over one-third of their online revenue is via email.
  • Nonprofits sent more emails around fundraising and advocacy in 2015 than the year prior, but the response rate decreased.
  • For every 1,000 emails sent, nonprofits raise about $44.
  • The average one-time gift ranged from $61 (Wildlife/Animal Welfare nonprofits) to $168 (Rights nonprofits).
  • Wildlife/Animal Welfare nonprofits have the highest rates of engagement on social media.
  • On average, just over 1% of website visitors make a donation.

The Benchmarks study may help you gauge your nonprofit’s development and marketing metrics against sector averages, in fact, on page 17 the authors advise how to best use the data comparatively. The study is available to download for free at .

Interview Series: Erika Arbogast, President of Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services

Erika Arbogast
Erika Arbogast

Erika Arbogast is the President of Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services, a 104-year-old private nonprofit organization in Pittsburgh. She also serves the community through her membership on the boards of many organizations including Pennsylvania Association for the Blind – where she is also Treasurer, Unique Source as Secretary of Board and Chair of the Governance committee, National Association for the Employment of People who are Blind, and VisionServe Alliance. Erika is also a volunteer at Magee Women’s Hospital.

Years in the Pittsburgh area: 36  All my life.

What was your first job?

I spent 4 years working with children with autism at The Wesley Institute.  I developed and implemented behavioral programs for them and worked with their schools, other therapists, and family members to insure consistency.

 How were you drawn to nonprofit work?

My family took in foster children when I was younger.  We had kids with disabilities and children who had been through some pretty rough circumstances.  I recognized from an early point in life that I had things pretty good and should be thankful for that.  I wanted to help others that weren’t as fortunate as I was.

What keeps you motivated?

Coming to a job that I love.  I enjoy my job tremendously and take it very seriously that other people depend on my leadership and decisions.  It is easy to stay motivated when you get to see the positive changes that your organization makes on other’s lives every day.

Additionally, the individuals that we serve, BVRS’s staff, and our donors and stakeholders keep me motivated. They are so passionate about the services that we provide and that helps to fuel my passion.


What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

If you don’t go after something that you want you will never have it.


What are you reading?  

With a 6-year-old and a very busy schedule, I usually only get to read on vacation.  I like to read books about the holocaust and political books.


Share a favorite time-saving/productivity hack:

Exercise.  I can’t tell you how many problems I have solved while working out.  Sometimes taking a break from your work to exercise actually helps you to find solutions and to be able to move on with other tasks.


What major issue or trend is currently affecting your corner of the nonprofit sector?   

Legislation that could affect our sector, specifically around taxation, charitable deduction changes, and financial concerns. Transportation also continues to be a major concern for the population that we serve so I am always thinking about this.


What is one goal that you hope to accomplish in 2015?

Helping our organization to become better known in the community through media campaigns, a location change, and through excitement around our Capital Campaign and new building (that we will be in by October 2015).


What is the best thing about the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh?

It is a close knit group that bands together when issues arise.  The foundation community is phenomenal here, and I have found that when you can document a need they will support it with funding.  They have their pulse on the community and are willing to allocate dollars where the need exists.

Nonprofits in Pittsburgh also seem very willing to work together to solve problems or to collaborate to improve processes or systems.


Does  Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services have any events coming up?

Person of Vision Event on May 19

Young Professionals Bucco Bash (Pirates game) May 20

Steelers Alumni Golf Outing July 27


Nonprofit Benchmarks – Social Media Continues to Grow but Email is Still on Top

M+R, in partnership with the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), recently released the 2014 Nonprofit Benchmarks Study  a look at data from a sample of nonprofits on email lists and messaging,  fundraising, web traffic,  social media activity and following, and online advocacy and/or programs.  The study can be downloaded from M+R or at the NTEN website and offers the opportunity to create your own infographic. Some highlights from the 2014 data,

  • Email list size for study participants grew by 11 percent, although growth slowed for all nonprofits except environmental groups.
  • Open rates increased across all types of emails – a 4 percent increase overall (an average of 14% in 2014). However, response rates for both fundraising and advocacy email declined.
  • Cultural groups had the highest open rate of any nonprofit sector at 20 percent, as well as the highest fundraising click-through rate at 0.70 percent and the highest fundraising response rate at 0.10 percent.
  • Website visitors per month increased 11 percent over 2013. However, the amount nonprofits raised per website visitor dropped 12 percent to $0.61 from 2013.
  • 76 percent of nonprofits surveyed utilized paid web marketing, with text and display ads the most popular methods.
  • Nonprofits continue to grow their social media audience (Facebook followers were up 37 percent, Twitter followers, 46 percent) but both pale in comparison to the numbers of email subscribers.