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Nonprofit outcomes — choose the right model at the right time

Outcomes measurement models provide a bird's eye view of your entire development and measurement process. Your path forward might resemble a straight, linear line — or it might twist and double-back to track inputs from earlier stages of your development process.

The exact nature and shape of your organization's "map" will depend on a variety of factors, including:

  • The complexity of the social problem you're trying to solve
  • The size of your organization
  • Your intended impact on the community
  • Available financial and human resources

Common outcomes measurement models

In broad strokes, there are two main schools of thought in the measurement model world: theory of change models and logic models. Rather than competing against each other, both have specific purposes in helping complete the overall map that'll tell you whether you're achieving your desired outcomes.

Theory of change models

Theory of change models reveal the big picture by examining your project or organization on a macro level. Instead of starting where you are now and plotting steps forward, theory of change models require you to first leap ahead into the future: what is your ultimate goal? That goal is then traced backward and broken into one or more "preconditions" (also known as outcomes) required for success.

Theory of change models:

  • Respond to the formula: "If we do X, then Y will change/happen because…"
  • May be expressed in different formats, with some including narrative text while others use visual aids or other formats
  • Explore why you think change happens
  • Are often used to update program designs or evaluate overall success

Because theory models are designed to show all possible pathways to a goal, they're often messy and complicated. Their loose, forgiving format can be especially beneficial for breaking down complex social issues into actionable streams or pathways that take into account any number of systemic or innovative approaches.

To create your own theory of change, consider this theory of change manual from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Logic models

If a theory model provides the blueprint for your project, logic models outline all the strategic steps needed to achieve any single "precondition" (or outcome) for success. In other words, logic models illustrate what needs to happen on a day-to-day, project-to-project level. They're often represented as traditional grid drafts or flow charts because they tell a story of progress — each step moving you closer to your goal.

Strong logic models connect what's happening in your program right now with what you hope to accomplish out in the world. In other words, they:

  • Respond to the formula: "We plan/hope to do X, which will give Y result/outcome."
  • Identify links between what's happening in your program and what changes those activities will produce, either now or in the future
  • Help you prove whether what you're doing today is actually moving you toward your future goals
  • Provide clarity in terms of your organization's overall narrative

There are many subsets of logic models — including program, research, activities and outcomes approaches.

To create your own logic model, consider this logic model development guide from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Getting started at your nonprofit

If you're beginning a new program, a theory of change model will help you strategize and forecast long-term plans. If you already have a healthy mission statement or theory model, you might begin by examining weak or troublesome links with a logic model. The right choice at the right time will save you from unnecessarily wasting precious hours and resources.

Above all, remember that there's no one-size-fits-all approach for developing an outcomes measurement model for your organization. The process will be unique to you and your program.



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



GOV.UK: Examples of theories of change by Isabel Vogel and Zoe Stephenson (2012)

Ann-Murray Brown: Differences between the theory of change and the logic model by Ann-Murray Brown (2016)



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