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Identifying outcomes: consider your organization's broader impact

There's no right or wrong way to develop outcomes. The process will be unique to your organization and the needs of your program. In a general sense, though, outcomes spring from a place of momentum and often include words such as enhanced, increased, more, new, altered, improved. Outcomes are short-term or intermediate changes that occur in client or participant behavior.

In contrast, impacts are broader changes that occur within the community or society as a result of a program. Outcomes are fundamentally different from impacts.

Some organizations like to identify project outcomes at the start of every new campaign. This can help keep staff on the same page. It'll also help you determine what data you might need to collect to evaluate program success. You'll have a better sense of the value of this method after running through the process a few times.

Focus on outcomes and impact

In the nonprofit world, it makes sense to focus on the wide-angle impact lens first. Zoom out. What social issue are you rallied around? What broad change do you want to see across the country? In your neighborhood? If you had unlimited resources, what would that look like? What could you accomplish? More than anything else, your over-arching mission should be clear to everyone who comes into contact with your organization.

Take this example from a community garden initiative:

  • Outcome: Program participants will take part in weekly gardening sessions to learn about growing organic produce at home.
  • Impact: Three years from now every house in the neighborhood will have reliable access to locally-grown produce.

In the words of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

What's the equivalent of your organization teaching people to long for the endless immensity of the sea? The key to getting people to support, volunteer and donate their time (and capital) is to make sure they understand how they're contributing to the broader impact of your organization.

Five outcomes categories

Many outcomes fall into the following five categories. As you brainstorm outcomes specific to your organization, keep in mind that not all organizations are focused on improving the same categories at the same time. Still, these basic categories should help you get started:

  • Knowledge. What knowledge do you want participants to walk away with? Have they gained a deep understanding of your subject matter?
  • Skills. Have they gained a mental, verbal or physical ability?
  • Attitudes. Have you changed the way someone sees the world? What they believe?
  • Intention to act. When participants walk away from your program, are they intending to make a change in their lives (even a tiny one)?
  • Behavior change. Behavior change is the golden goose — elusive and hard to attain. Changes might include lifestyle adjustments, habits or advocating for policy change.

Map your nonprofit outcomes strategy

Once you've identified impacts and put together a team, it's time to grapple with outcomes themselves and how to measure them. The path between where you are now and the impact you hope to have in the community is paved with outcomes — short-term change after short-term change, on into the future.

Be careful to choose outcomes in sync with the scale of your organization and budget. By selecting outcomes across time, you can learn to chain them together (more below) into an actionable outcome plan.

  • Short-term (0 to 6 months): What knowledge and skills do you hope to see in your program participants?
  • Intermediate (3 to 9 months): Imagine a program participant nine months into the future. What behavioral change would you hope to see?
  • Long-term (6 to 12 months): What do you hope to have achieved a year or more from now? Are you trying to influence change nationally or are you more focused on a specific region?

Connecting short and long-term outcomes

Now it's time to connect short-term to intermediate to long-term outcomes to create a seamless plan. Use an if…then…model. If [short-term outcome] occurs, then [intermediate] occurs, and if that happens then [long-term impact] will be realized.

Example: In our community garden, we expect that increasing our participants' knowledge of organic produce will lead to more families growing food at home, which will help us achieve the impact of every family in the neighborhood having access to reliable, healthy, locally-grown food.

Checklist for getting started

Ready to get started? Make sure with these questions:

  • What program will you study first?
  • Who do you need on your team?
  • Do you need a manager or adviser?
  • Do you have the support and participation of your board?
  • Do you need help from outside your department or organization?
  • What's your budget for additional costs?
  • What are the available resources to conduct outcome measurement?
  • What's your timeline? Are you working on a brand-new program or are you studying an organization over years — or even decades?

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