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Outcome measurements: looking for results

Outcomes are the measurable, meaningful changes in the people, organizations or communities that a program serves, while impacts are broader changes that occur within the community as the result of a program or service. In turn, outcomes measurement asks the question, "So what?"

So what if your staff offers extra tutoring hours after school? Do students then perform better academically? How do you know? If a new donor wanted to sponsor a program, what would you suggest? What kind of impact would you expect it to have?

Outcomes measurement is the study of how your work benefits your clients, both during and after participating in your programs. By measuring outcomes, you can be sure your work is helping your organization to deliver its mission.

It's tempting to think that only large nonprofits need to study the efficacy of their programs, but the opposite is true. This process is even more essential for tiny organizations that need to maximize limited capital. Here, we'll explore how to reframe your organization's goals into a success story that'll help garner community support and attract new backers for your cause.

Defining success in your outcomes measurement

The road to measurement begins by defining what success means to your organization. Let's look at the example of a community garden start-up. For one program, success might mean renting out all six family garden plots every summer. In another, it might mean developing a stable program model to replicate across the country. Perspective matters.

As you define success, ask yourself:

  • What improvements in participants' live do you want to see?
  • What impact do you aim to have on individuals and on community groups?
  • What does "making a difference" look like for your organization?
  • What kinds of partnerships would be most valuable to your organization?

Understanding the outcomes measurement process

Your organization wants to make a difference — and measurement will tell you if you're actually making the impact you want to make in the community. You'll also want to think about what you'll do once you've gathered the data. For example, should you spend valuable resources developing a new program? Or does it make more sense to revive a successful program from the past? Studying your organization's success (or lack thereof) will help you marshal resources into the programs where they'll be most effective.

Consider compelling reasons to start measuring outcomes today:

  • Study the efficacy of a past program. Studying the success of a past program will give you valuable information for future campaigns. Did the event meet the stated financial goals? Consider what data you need to collect to know if this program should be built upon for the future.
  • Identify areas for improvement. What's not working? Does everyone on your staff agree? Take time to get input from everyone involved.
  • Prove your value to the community. Are you really doing what you say you're doing? Can you prove it? Many people want to donate their time and money to social organizations, but there are so many options. Why your program? What are they contributing to?
  • Make informed decisions about resources. You can't fund everything. Which programs should get extra human power? Money? Time? Make sure you're putting your resources into the right places.
  • Qualify for new foundation, government or local grants. Nonprofit funding can be hugely competitive. Stand out from the crowd by highlighting what you're already doing well — and back up your assertions with hard data.

The components of nonprofit outcomes measurement success

For some organizations, success feels like a lottery — random luck. There are many variables: people, energy, time, money, social capital. Adjusting one even slightly could throw off the whole organizational assembly line. So, where do you start?

Remember that you're the expert on your own process. Your plan for measuring success will look different than, say, the community theater down the street. Don't worry about building the perfect system. Start small and focus on what will make a difference for your organization.

Also remember that there are grants available to help with the cost of developing a strong measurement system. You might check local or regional resources first, as they're more likely to support smaller or community-based nonprofits.

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Disclaimer

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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References

Free Management Library: Basic guide to outcomes-based evaluation for nonprofit organizations with very limited resources by Carter McNamara

Strengthening Nonprofits: Measuring outcomes

Meera: Outcomes and impacts

Gallaudet University: Setting performance targets (criteria for success)

The Guardian: 10 tips for charity impact measurement by Aimee Meade (2014)

References

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Writer and firm believer in using business as a tool for positive change