Build a culture of continuous improvementThere are many ways to apply outcomes results. The two most common paths: using results to make decisions about current or future programming, and using data to launch another improvement cycle.
Remember that continuous improvement isn't something that can be checked off a to-do list, however. Rather, the cycle should be built into the fabric of your organization:
- Construct an outcomes measurement model and identify key outcomes
- Build and implement a data collection plan
- Study the numerical results
- Communicate results and changes
- Analyze and reflect
Don't speed the reflection process. Give yourself and your team time to analyze the information you've gathered before leaping into the application phase. This process often brings to light other issues that might deserve their own study. In some cases, you may need to return to step one with a new understanding of what to measure and then begin a new cycle. Though it can be frustrating to go back in time, this is a good thing because it means you're working on important, multi-faceted issues. Keep up the good work!
Frame outcomes results
When you're ready to analyze your results, frame them in light of the reason you began this improvement process in the first place. What were you trying to prove or disprove? Evaluate everything in terms of your outcomes and mission statements — are you moving closer to your goals?
Then, consider options for communicating and applying the results of your study. For example:
- Visual aids. Build graphs and create infographics. Send visual aids with snapshots of your results to participants and newsletter subscribers. Better yet, add these snapshots to your website.
- Social media. Use Facebook and other online communities to start conversations with the wider community about your results.
- Formal reports or articles. Describe your logic model, data plan and measurement practices. Write out what you intend to do with the information you've gathered. Do you have recommendations for action for your peers or others working in similar fields? Does this issue warrant further study?
- Stories of impact. Though they're not always included in formal reports, stories of impact allow you to weave personal experiences into an overall mission. They're useful as both marketing and teaching tools and can put a personal face on your organization.
- Media. Capturing the attention of the media is essential for getting your message out. Invite a reporter to learn about a new or successful program. Contact bloggers and activists who might be interested in featuring your work. Draft press releases that highlight the most striking changes you've identified and send them to local newspapers, bloggers and other organizations.
Grow toward innovation
Innovation is the long game — the massive impact you hope to have on society. Rather than measuring progress in time increments, innovation asks us to measure everything in terms of indicators and other targeted outcomes. Focusing on the future in this way also forces you to think through how your work will affect future participants.
Consider the following questions:
- What have you learned as part of the outcome measurement process?
- How will this benefit your organization or community?
While results don't always fit a stereotypical cause-and-effect relationship, studying them should indicate if you're headed in the right direction. Growing toward innovation doesn't mean avoiding conflict — it means studying the successes alongside the "failures" to move closer to achieving your goals.
Then, after each continuous improvement cycle, ask both yourself and your team: what's next?
Strengthening Nonprofits: Measuring outcomes
Free Management Library: Basic guide to program evaluation (including outcomes evaluation) by Carter McNamara