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Focus on practical applications for desired outcomes

Studying the current service systems in your organization will help you select the right outcomes measurement campaign. Here, we'll break down what a service system is and how understanding the existing systems in your organization can help you make the best decisions about moving forward.

What are service systems?

Service systems:

  1. Are composed of elements such as people, programs or facilities
  2. Have a structure, such as a chapter, branch, organization or location
  3. Pursue a behavior, such as a process, task or evaluation
  4. Aim to achieve a specific goal or impact

For example: 1) A free tutoring center will open in the 2) old sock factory to 3) provide a consistent, safe space for kids to learn 4) for the purpose of raising literacy awareness and grades in local schools.

Systems may range in size from a single volunteer to a nonprofit hospital or university. Some are designed to allow people to perform tasks quickly — for example, on a factory assembly line — while others might focus on maximizing communication. As you design your measurement strategy, make sure you're taking the size and scale of your program into consideration:

What are your current systems?

As you're familiarizing yourself with this process, it can be helpful to begin with a micro-level system of one person: you. What system are you in charge of?

Imagine a Habitat for Humanity construction volunteer installing tile in the bathroom so a new family can have a clean, safe place to wash and live. Though there are larger systems going on all around — fundraising campaigns, the kitchen crew — the actual tiling itself is in one of the smallest circles, so it doesn't require additional support.

As you choose what to measure, if possible focus first on a system under your control (such as the tile installation in the preceding example). Eventually you can expand into studying bigger systems that include your team or organization.

Who are the systems designed to benefit?

Nonprofit systems are typically designed to achieve a major goal or impact. That impact might be helping one person make a substantial, long-term lifestyle change. Or it might mean providing a service to people throughout the community — for example, by opening a nonprofit fair trade shop. Some systems rely on geography. Imagine a free health center, which will naturally draw people in the immediate vicinity. Others, such as technical support, may be best understood broken down by industry.

Now's the time to focus on the end game: what impact are you trying to achieve?

What are the challenges?

Larger organizations will likely have many overlapping systems in need of measurement. Realistically they can't all be studied at once, so you'll need to prioritize projects based on the expected level of impact.

Another common challenge is a lack of resources. Be thoughtful about your budget before selecting a measurement campaign that's either people- or service-heavy. These tend to drive up costs because they require a great deal of time and capital. Instead, consider budget-friendly options, such as free online survey or poll applications.

You might also face an uninvolved board. In this case, you may encourage board training or a board self-assessment. Encourage board members to ask questions and push back on assumptions.

What's the desired result?

Your ultimate impact might change slightly over time as you shift focus or select a new goal. It's important to focus on the desired result, however, because it will determine if your system is healthy and functioning.

As an example, let's look at a community trying to build a local recreation center. They might have any number of driving goals, such as:

  • Providing local access to a pool and gym, especially targeting the key demographics of geriatric or injured participants who might not be able to travel far to exercise
  • Building a designated space in the community for sports and art classes
  • Creating well-paying jobs in the community by supporting the construction industry and other local vendors

What you're hoping to achieve, and how you plan to do it, will be specific to your organization. The important thing is to be clear and optimistic about your success. Map out what that system looks like so you can break the process down into manageable pieces to accomplish over time.

How will you measure and report results?

Now that you've identified systems that need work, it's time to study them.

Think ahead

As you plan your measurement campaign, make sure that the results will provide new information on how to move forward.

For example, if you're studying the efficacy of a tutoring center — and judging success by how many students improved a letter grade or more during the year — you should first know what you plan to do with the information you collect. Are you trying to decide whether or not to drop the program? Are you hoping to better understand a successful system to hopefully replicate it? Whatever the reason, the connection to your organization's future should be clear.

Learn from the for-profit model

Although the primary focus of most nonprofits isn't to maximize profits, much can be learned from conventional for-profit service models. Instead of working to increase shareholder yields, your organization might employ strategies to reduce unnecessary costs — allowing you to focus resources where they'll have the biggest impact.

Adopt a holistic view of your work

While you don't want to lose sight of achieving your intended result, keep any single day in perspective. You probably can't change the world in 24 hours, but that's normal and okay.

Think in terms of investors vs. funders

People donating to your cause believe in your mission and the change you're trying to achieve. They're not just donors or funders — they're truly invested in your cause. As much as possible, include them in the process to let them know how their support is making a difference in the lives of "real people" on the ground.

Focus on outcomes and activities

Whether you're designing new service systems or working to improve the old, focus on practical ways of measuring the outcomes you desire. For example, "increasing community awareness" might be measured by tracking attendance for new visitors to your physical building. Carefully consider your benchmark goals and what their success would mean in the lives of the people or organizations you're trying to serve. Service systems should be designed to maximize the practical impact of your mission.

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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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Author

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