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Understanding the dual nature of outcomes

Here's one of the most basic questions concerning outcomes: What is an "outcome"?

While this may seem to be a simple question to some, many nonprofit practitioners are not quite sure about the answer — and this is understandable, in part because outcomes have a dual nature.

The first thing to recognize is that outcomes are not what we do. They are the things that happen because of what we do.

When asked to discuss their organizations' outcomes, many nonprofit practitioners fall back on the same activity accounts the sector has always used — the number of clients served, the number of reports issued, the number of legislative visits made, the number of trainings held. Others look back on the previous year and try to identify areas of critical mass where their programs did the most, and label those as "outcomes." But neither of these is correct, because outcomes and activities are completely different things.

It might be useful to think of it in process terms. The basic elements of any process are its inputs, its activity, its outputs, and then its outcomes. So let's say an organization ran a job training program in a community with a high rate of unemployment. What would these elements be in that case?

The inputs would be all the things — the staff's time and knowledge, the facilities, the materials — that go into the training. The activity would be the training classes themselves. The individuals trained would be the outputs of the process. However, what those individuals were able to do as a result of the training would be its outcomes.

This brings us to the second facet of outcomes: they are — or should be — targets.

Outcomes are what we set out to accomplish, or the changes in a situation that we intend to bring about. They are what we effectively promise we will deliver for our clients, stakeholders and investors. So in the case of our job training program, merely having people trained, but still unemployed, is not a true accomplishment. It doesn't really change the situation for those individuals, their families or the community. So an outcome we might promise is that a certain number of them would be placed in jobs related to the training. A better outcome would be that a certain number of them retained those jobs for maybe six months or longer. That would represent a meaningful change.

If we look at it this way, the number of training sessions held or the number of people trained is not a useful measure of success. It's helpful to the degree that it gives our stakeholders and investors an idea of the scope of our efforts, but it doesn't truly get to the heart of why the program was offered in the first place. Determining how close we came to our outcome target, however — knowing just how many of our clients were able to get and keep jobs thanks to our program — does tell us whether or not the program succeeded.

In a similar fashion, reporting on the number of policymaker visits we had, the number of white papers we issued, the number of rallies we organized or the number of meals we delivered to our senior citizen client base doesn't really tell us how effective we've been. Mostly what it does is tell people how busy we've been — and that's not the same thing at all.

If we're going to use outcomes in our work — and we should — we have to begin to think differently about some things.

For more from Robert Penna, visit the Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox.

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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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