Outcomes 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.