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Measure outcomes, not outputs

January 11, 2015 Article 3 min read
As a success measure for your nonprofit organization, are you measuring outcomes? They are the benefits for your populations after participating in your program activities. Outcomes help gauge your mission’s impact and are more important than milestones in the long run.

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When asked how they measure outcomes, most not-for-profit organizations will point to what they can count—x vocational programs, y program participants, z session attendees. And that’s fine, except those numbers are outputs—not outcomes. Outputs are important; they’re intermediary milestones that an organization is on track—or not—toward fulfilling its mission. Measuring outcomes, however, is a more effective means to gauge your organization’s impact.

Measuring outcomes allows a not-for-profit organization to better tell its story and make its case to potential donors or funders.

Outcomes are the changes or benefits for individuals or populations during or after participating in program activities. They can relate to changes in knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, or condition. Measuring outcomes allows organizations to measure the effectiveness of a program, identify successful and not-so-successful programs, get clarity and consensus around a program’s purpose, and prove value to existing and potential funders. Sure, they can be nebulous, but by using a program logic model, measuring outcomes can be clearer than you’d expect.

Outcomes vs. outputs

Before we get to the model, let’s talk a bit more about outcomes.  Let’s say the ultimate goal of a program is for seniors to maintain good health. You could start by offering classes in diabetes management; if 30 seniors attended that class, that would be an output. An early outcome could be, “thanks to the class, seniors increase their knowledge of diabetes prevention steps.” A more intermediate outcome could be “seniors modify their diet and exercise routines.” Which, of course, leads to that ultimate outcome of maintaining good health.

The program logic model

A program logic model is composed of inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes. Here is one example of a logic model courtesy of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation:

Inputs Activities Outputs Outcomes
Resources NeededServices
What we do 
Benefits for
MoneyTrainClass taughtNew
Staff ShelterSessions completedIncreased skills
Volunteers CounselParticipants servedChanged attitudes
EquipmentAssessModified behavior
Improved status

Regardless of which model you use, it’s important to ask five questions:

  1. What is your organization aiming to accomplish? State your ultimate goal—the reason your organization exists. What groups or communities do you aim to assist and how will you know when you’ve been successful?
  2. What are your strategies for making this happen? List your organization’s strategies for accomplishing this long term goal, and specify the approaches you’ll employ and why these methods will benefit your target audience or advance your issue. Identify near-term activities that serve as important building blocks for future success.
  3. What are your organization’s capabilities for doing this? Detail the resources, capacities and connections that support your progress toward long-term goals. Identify the organization’s core assets, including both internal and external resources that will be used to accomplish the goals, and any future resources or tools that will further strengthen your work.
  4. How will your organization know if you are making progress? Identify key qualitative and quantitative indicators against which your organization assesses your progress toward your intended impact. Include a description of your assessment and improvement process: the qualitative and quantitative methods used and how this information is used to refine your efforts.
  5. What have and haven’t you accomplished so far? Demonstrate recent progress toward your long-term goals by describing how your near-term objectives are propelling your organization toward your ultimate intended impact. Make clear how these outcomes are contributing to fulfilling long-term goals, and outline what obstacles exist and what adjustments have been made along the way.
Once your model is developed, review it and ensure that the need for your program and its target population are clear. Be sure that the outcomes are focused on the client and that they’re within the scope of influence of the program. Finally, be sure it’s written in language that both internal staff and potential funding sources will readily understand and that there are no unintended consequences—for example, could the success of one program take away resources from another?

In conclusion

Although a program logic model isn’t the only way to measure outcomes, it can be a valuable tool for not-for-profit organizations. Measuring outcomes allows a not-for-profit organization to better tell its story and make its case to potential donors or funders. And remember—you’re looking for outcomes, not outputs. For more information, give us a call.

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