Improve outcomes tracking efforts with key features and available solutions
Nonprofits of all sizes need data to evaluate the results of their work. Armed with outcomes data — data that captures what happens as a result of your programs or services — you can make informed decisions about which programs and services to continue, and how to improve them.
Your existing spreadsheets and databases likely provide a solid foundation for outcomes tracking. Investing in dedicated software can help you maximize outcomes tracking by making it easier to:
- Collect, store and search for outcomes data
- Analyze outcomes data
- Identify trends and patterns
- Display outcomes data, both online and in print
Which outcomes will you track?
The term outcomes refers to a vast range of data — anything from the number of people who attend a single event to long-term behavior change in thousands of clients.
You might distinguish specific types of outcomes using the following examples from Laura Quinn, founder and former executive director of Idealware:
- Activities: number of classes scheduled, programs offered, fliers distributed or emails sent
- Participation: number of people who complete your programs, download your reports or buy your publications
- Initial perceived satisfaction: survey responses from new participants
- Longer-term satisfaction: clients who remain employed for years after taking part in your workforce development program
- Attributable impact: lasting benefits to the community that flow directly from your organization's activities
Start by tracking outcomes that are relatively simple to measure — activities, participation and initial perceived satisfaction. Move to higher levels only after successfully tracking lower-level outcomes.
Tracking high-level outcomes requires deep capacity. Measurement of long-term satisfaction and attributable impact is often a job for professional researchers with ample budgets for scientific studies.
What are the available solutions?
No single application is likely to meet all of your outcomes tracking needs. You're more likely to use several applications with complementary features. For example, you might supplement existing spreadsheets and databases with any of these more powerful applications:
- Case management systems. These systems collect information about clients who use your services as well as progress toward individual goals.
- Customer relationship management (CRM) systems. These systems collect information about donors, volunteers, clients, customers and other people who interact with your organization.
- Membership management systems. These systems track attendance, participation and membership renewals.
- Learning management systems. These systems are essential to nonprofits that run charter schools and other academic institutions.
- Legal case management systems. These systems are used by nonprofits that offer legal aid.
You might also check out the Inspiring Impact hub from New Philanthropy Capital, which allows users to search for measurement tools according to type, sector, format and cost.
How will the software fit into your business processes?
Make sure that you have the resources to implement outcomes tracking software after purchase. Begin by budgeting for software costs — licensing, installation, customization and upgrades. Also budget for human resources. Your staff members and volunteers will need to learn, use and maintain the software.
If the budget allows, you might hire a consultant to help with installation, customization and training.
What are the most important features to consider?
When you're evaluating outcomes tracking software, consider the following features:
- Closed vs. open. Some applications are designed to work "out of the box" with a fixed set of features. Other applications can be customized to fit your organization's processes. Keep in mind that customization requires special expertise and increases the total cost of ownership.
- Cloud-based vs. local. If you have users in many locations, consider a cloud-based application. These can be accessed by anyone with a web browser. Cloud-based software is also maintained by the vendor, which can reduce long-term costs. In contrast, local software is installed on individual computers.
- People vs. program data. Some outcomes applications are geared to collecting information about people. Others also track information about the content of specific programs and services.
- Required features. Some nonprofits are mandated by a government agency or funder to collect specific outcomes data. Be mindful of data protection and privacy laws (such as HIPAA in the U.S.), which may restrict the types of data you can collect and retain.
Whenever possible, use software on a trial basis before you buy. Beware of vendors who offer "all in one" solutions for outcomes tracking. These may be loaded with features that you don't need — and missing features that you do.
Also remember that outcomes tracking is an overall strategy that goes beyond technology. Choose software only after you know which outcomes to track and what to do with the information you gain.
MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.
Jewish Family & Children's Service: "TIERS": Tool for intra-agency evaluation resource sharing by Rachel Albert and Laura Beals
Idealware: Understanding software for program evaluation by Chris Bernard (2013)
NTEN: Strategies for program evaluation in the 21st century by Kyle Andrei (2013)
NTEN: Getting technology to work for your evaluation needs by Laura Beals (2014)
Idealware: A hierarchy of program evaluation metrics (2013)