Quantify your Case for Support

We will often tell our clients to Quantify your Case for Support. The following two ‘Measuring Up’ Blog posts at the Chronicle of Philanthropy beautifully describe why we offer this advice.  If you can work to further measure and quantify your organization’s work, you then have a new and exciting means of thanking your donors. Demonstrating the impact of your current donors through successful outcomes is the best method to thank them, which then leads to the next philanthropic investment.

4 Tips for Measuring Outcomes Instead of Activities

In my last post, I wrote about why it’s important for nonprofits to measure outcomes rather than activities. I was excited to see that the post sparked a discussion, but I also noticed that folks were unsure just how to go about measuring outcomes. So here are a few tips.

In more than 20 years of working with nonprofits, I’ve found that one of the most common frustrations is how to make use of limited resources to conduct evaluations that show an organization’s impact and meet grant makers’ expectations. These suggestions will help.

Aim at the right outcomes. The “right” outcomes are those you can credibly claim to produce. By that, I mean it must be believable that your organization makes a substantial contribution to producing the outcomes it lays claim to.

One charity I worked with wanted to say it had reduced a city’s unemployment rate. But this was a stretch because the city had a population of millions and the charity was providing job training to only a couple hundred people. In this case, it would’ve made more sense for the charity to determine how many program participants were successfully placed in jobs.

The right outcomes should also be relevant. In other words, they need to pass the “so what?” test. Just as you are deliberate about your organization’s mission, make sure your outcomes are relevant to that mission.

I was recently talking to a state budget analyst about the status of a road-construction effort. He commented that the road construction had created new jobs. But did the project actually produce a road? Sure, job creation is an important outcome, but the work was really about laying pavement. So, don’t ignore that.

Use existing research. Some of the best news about outcomes measurement is that you don’t need to start from scratch. Most grant makers don’t expect absolute scientific proof of effectiveness from every program they fund. Moreover, since most nonprofits use strategies that have been implemented or studied before, a wealth of research is already available. Draw from existing data to establish that your program is well designed, and avoid the trouble of having to prove your approach again.

For example, education-focused programs can check out the Institute of Education Sciences Works Clearinghouse website to access evidence about what approaches are most likely to reduce dropout rates and increase student science achievement.

Consider indirect measurements. Many programs are working toward achieving ambitious outcomes that take a long time to produce and are impractical to measure as a whole. In these instances, nonprofits can demonstrate their impact by using indicators that don’t directly measure their outcomes but that help predict how likely an intervention will produce the intended outcomes.

For instance, a program designed to improve health could gather data on the target population’s dietary, exercise, and other lifestyle changes and, with backing from existing evidence, demonstrate whether the effort is on track to produce positive health outcomes.

Focus on measuring what matters to funders. The most useful information you can offer your supporters is the expected return on their investment. The key question to answer is how effectively you can produce the outcome that matters to them. Rather than providing the number of hours students are tutored, retention rates, and volunteer involvement, try making a more compelling data-driven argument that you are 80 percent likely to produce an intended outcome, like getting students in your program to be proficient in math.

There is no one perfect way to calculate efficacy, but measurement that shows value will pay off more than data about activities.



Stop Measuring Activities and Start Measuring Outcomes

In my 20-plus years working in the nonprofit world, one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen nonprofits make is measuring activities instead of outcomes. I understand why: Measuring activities is easier, and nonprofits have limited time to dedicate to measurement. But measuring activities isn’t going to help nonprofits demonstrate their value and secure more funds.
When groups measure program efforts—teaching, training, negotiating, feeding, researching, and so on—they’re measuring activities. Outcomes, on the other hand, are the results of those activities: changed awareness, behavior, condition, or status. There are outcomes that pertain to individuals (like increased graduation rates or improved literacy), organizational outcomes (like more revenue or a better reputation), and systemic outcomes (like changed policies or greater investment).
To illustrate the difference between outcomes and activities, I think of a story from advisory work I did with a community foundation that was trying to measure the impact of its grants. At one of our weekly grant-review meetings, a program officer suggested that her latest grant was pretty straightforward and didn’t require much discussion: The grantee had requested $25,000 to purchase a new van. The program officer insisted that “the grantee either bought the van or didn’t. It isn’t hard to measure.”
I pressed, wanting to know why the van was purchased. To deliver stereo equipment? To move stolen goods? To sell ice cream? Turns out, the program officer requested the van to transport elderly citizens from rural communities to hospitals to receive preventative care. The real outcome of the grant wasn’t buying the van but providing the elderly with increased access to health care.
When we start by identifying the outcome, we can consider the most efficient ways to achieve that outcome. In the case of increasing health-care access for the elderly, options like train passes, bus fares, or even setting up local clinics are valid alternatives to consider.
As your organization works to make its impact, my advice for avoiding the trap of tracking activities is to remember the following principles :
Outcomes are abstract and complex. Since activities are tangible and countable, like the number of website page views, many organizations focus on counting those rather than measuring more meaningful change.
Outcomes are difficult to control and take time to produce. Activities can occur quickly and are easy to control: Either you bought a van or you didn’t. But outcomes are subject to external forces and can require years to be realized.
Outcomes speak to value. Activity tracking demonstrates accountability and compliance, while outcomes demonstrate the meaningful change your organization creates.
It is crucial for your organization to determine which outcomes it can produce and to measure your contribution toward those outcomes. This demonstration of value shows supporters how important your work is and can help you bring in more money so you can make an even greater impact.