Inherently important outputs in nonprofits
Updated: Nov 9
We have these different ways of measuring nonprofit work because:
Nonprofits want to describe the work they are doing (i.e. outputs)
Nonprofits need to justify their budgets and expenditures
Many nonprofits exist to address larger social issues, and addressing them requires a lot of work (i.e. outputs lead to outcomes)
But, what about an output that’s important on its own? The output is the point of the program, and we don’t need to connect it to some grander purpose. We don’t need to justify it by saying “We do output A so it can result in outcome B”.
The output is the point.
Inherently important outputs
These are inherently important outputs. These outputs are the point of the work and aren't connect to outcomes.
Inherently important outputs are apparent in a couple of types of work:
Basic human needs - food, clothing, shelter
Supporting human dignity or enjoyment of life - providing free haircuts and showers; providing Thanksgiving turkeys or prepared Thanksgiving meals; granting wishes to children with severe diseases; or Christmas gifts for children in lower income families
An easy example of an inherently important output is what we often label as a “soup kitchen” - a place that serves prepared meals, typically to lower income and/or homeless people. In a soup kitchen, the food is the point. People walk in needing food, and they get it. People walk out no longer in need of that meal, but they will probably have to worry about the next meal, and the one after that.
Did the soup kitchen address food insecurity in their neighborhood or even among the people they just served? Nope. The people they fed are still food insecure.
Did the soup kitchen do something that’s inherently important? Yep. It gave food to people who otherwise might not have eaten. It supplemented the incomes of people who are choosing between food, rent, medicine, or clothing for their kids.
The output is the point.
We don’t need to claim that we solved a huge social problem or even reduced by a microscopic amount.
Lots of services are inherently important. Free haircuts, free showers, free clothing. Soup kitchens and food pantries. So are Make-a-Wish and free days at art museums.
What outcomes are you measuring from those services? Do you really even need to? Do you have to justify providing joy to a child or letting more people see the beautiful artwork in your museum? What about river cleanup efforts? Can you (should you?) really quantify river beauty, or is it enough to say “we pulled out a truck load of garbage”?
Why talk about this? It seems self-evident.
This might all feel a bit silly. Nonprofits have to "sell" and "justify" what the do no matter what...you scratch and beg and plead your way into every dollar you have.
We aren't saying that outcomes don't matter, or that you can ignore measuring your impact. That's unrealistic for most nonprofits.
The distinction we are hoping to make is that some outputs will merit support from donors, staff, and volunteers on their own, without a connection to a grander achievement. They can easily say to themselves "that's something I can get behind". And, many outputs won't. They need to be attached to an outcome before they can be widely supported.
You can use this concept to help you create a mental model of your work and the data you decide to collect to measure your success and tell your story.
Working with Inherently important outputs
Here are a few things for you to think about as you consider working with and measuring inherently important outputs.
Is the output the reason you exist?
There are plenty of organizations with the primary purpose of providing food. Your community is full of people who don’t have enough resources to get by, and your organization helps them by providing food. You are meeting basic needs.
If one or a few inherently important outputs are the reason you exist, then investing a lot of time and energy trying to measure and talk about outcomes probably doesn't make sense for you.
Does your mission leave room for it?
Mission statements that focus on human dignity, meeting the needs of your community, listening, or providing basic needs leave lots of room for providing these types of services. A free haircut for a kid probably won’t make them academically successful, but it will make them feel good. It will promote their self-worth.
A mission statement focused solely on academic success might have room for inherently important outputs in your mix of services. But, you also need to provide services and collect data directly related to academics (e.g. standardized reading or math test scores, rates of absenteeism, completion of educational credentials such as GEDs or college). In this case, it probably wouldn't be enough to say, "we provided food, and food is important for learning, so we are fulfilling our mission as an academic focused nonprofit".
Do your key supporters have an appetite for it?
Lots of nonprofits want to be “data driven”. Your board and other supporters might want something more than counting outputs, and they might have grander ambitious for your organization. Before you embrace this type of service and this approach for collecting data, make sure your board and other key supporters understand it and buy-in. It's important to explain the implications of this approach and the challenges associated with it.
Justifying Inherently Important Outputs
Okay, so these outputs should stand on their own, but you might need to justify them to get (more) support, buy-in, attention, or funding. Here are a few things to consider if you find yourself in that position:
If you try to connect outputs to outcomes, don't overreach
In human services, inherently important outputs will often have a distant connection with important outcomes like “stability”. It’s important to be cautious when connecting the dots between your services and distant. For example, you probably can’t point to a specific family that’s thriving or a positive trend in your community and say “that’s all thanks to our great food pantry”. The connection between your output and the outcome needs to be plausible.
If you can connect outputs to outcomes, then keep doing it
If your data and reporting processes and storytelling already allow you to connect inherently important outputs to outcomes, then keep doing it. It always helps to have a convincing story about "impact".
Try to demonstrate that it's a feeder into outcome focused services
If you can't connect your inherently important outputs to outcomes, then you have one more outlet. You might try to justify an inherently important output as a “feeder” service for other programs.
For example, a settlement house might offer services that meet basic needs, and those services can be a starting place to connect people with outcome-oriented programs. A food pantry staff member might mention that the organization also has budgeting workshops and a computer skills program. The food pantry is providing an inherently important output, and the nonprofit can justify the service to a reluctant board or foundation as part of a recruitment pipeline into outcome-oriented programs.
It feels good, but...
Don’t let this feel good rhetoric trick you. Just because you or I or most people think something is inherently important, that doesn’t mean your donors, board, or foundations will agree or care. We all make choices about what to do with our finite resources, and many of us want to see outcomes - changed lives, healthier communities, less crime, etc.
Inherently important outputs tend to tap into our core values about basic needs and human dignity, but they still have to be embraced by people who can give you money or time to make your services possible. Your organization can track inherently important outputs , but you still have to find your market - the people who will support your cause. In this way, inherently important outputs are not only a measurement challenge, they are also a marketing challenge.
Before you go
We just made up the term “inherently important outputs”, or at least we think we did. Someone else in human history has probably used those 3 words and meant roughly the same thing, but we didn’t stumble across it. So, you might decide to use “inherently important outputs” with donors or in a grant proposal, but you’ll probably need to explain it.
This post is part of our nonprofit data bootcamp series. Check out the complete list of nonprofit data bootcamp topics with links to other published posts.
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