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.