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  • Ryan Brooks

What are outcomes? How can nonprofits pick the right ones?

Updated: Jan 29

5 Rules for Picking Outcomes at Your Nonprofit


In another post, we defined outputs as the things you do and outcomes as the things you achieve through your outputs. We also gave lots of examples of outputs and provided some guidance about how to select good ones for your organization to track.


Since outcomes are the things you achieve through your outputs, they are measures of success. They can be used to understand program effectiveness and efficiency; they can be used to understand how your services should be changed; and they can be used to tell the bigger story of "how we make a difference". Outcomes are the "bottom line" for your organization that exists to make the world a better place, not to make a profit.


It can be relatively easy to define and track the outputs your organization provides, but outcomes tend to be harder to define and more difficult to track.


A few reasons outcomes can be more challenging than outputs:

  1. Outcomes typically occur after outputs are provided, often weeks or months later, so they can’t be tracked immediately.

  2. Outcomes can be less precise concepts that need to be clearly defined and explained, and there's rarely a “right” answer.

  3. We have to be sure our outputs can plausibly lead to the outcomes we claim credit for achieving.


Why Outcomes Matter - Aside from "funders make me do it"


Your nonprofit probably has mission & vision statements. They are full of lofty ideas that guide your work, sort of like a compass. But, your organization also needs a way to determine if you are moving in a direction consistent with these statements.


Measuring outcomes can help you do that. Outcomes allow you to turn those lofty ideas into something measurable. You can look at your outcomes to help you understand the work you are doing, if you are moving in the right direction, and if you need to find ways to change.


In this post, we offer 5 rules to help you create good outcomes for your organization.


Rules for Picking Nonprofit Outcomes


Rule 1: Pick outcomes that can be counted


You need to be able to count something related to an outcome for it to be useful for your organization.


'Ideas like “housing equality” and “liberty and justice for all” can’t be counted directly. These are great for a mission & vision statements, but they are not great as outcomes. These ideas can, however, be used to point toward outcomes that can be measured.


For example, you might use “housing equality” to develop the following measurable outcome:


Increase the number and percent of racial & ethnic minority homeowners in zip code 90210.


If you can't count it, then it's not an outcome, it's a concept.


Rule 2: Pick outcomes with an obvious, plausible connection with your outputs


The work you do (outputs) and the things you achieve through the work you do (outcomes) needs to be obviously connected and easily understood by your staff and supporters.


By picking outcomes that are obviously connected to outputs, you can make a strong claim about your impact.


Example of obvious connections between outputs and outcomes:

Academic Success Program at an Elementary School


Outputs

  • You completed reading skills assessments with 100 students

  • You provided daily after-school tutoring groups to 75 students

  • You provided weekly 1-on-1 tutoring sessions for 20 students, for a total of 200 sessions


Outcomes

  • You helped 75 students read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade

We an see how the services provided would lead to the outcomes measured. It’s possible that other factors like parental involvement contributed to these results, but the organization organizations can plausibly claim that the achievements resulted from their services.


Example of confusing or distant connections between outputs and outcomes:

Academic Success Program at an Elementary School


Outputs

  • You completed reading skills assessments with 100 students

  • You provided daily after-school tutoring groups to 75 students

  • You provided weekly 1-on-1 tutoring sessions for 20 students, for a total of 200 sessions


Outcomes

  • You helped 70 percent of graduating seniors were admitted to a 4 year college

Here, the connection between outputs and outcomes is weak. Yes, helping young students learn to read is important for academic success; but it’s hard for you to claim credit for students enrolling in college many years later. The path between your services and that outcome is just too long and includes too many other factors for this claim to be plausible.


Rule 3: Define outcomes clearly


Okay, so this rule isn't about "picking" your outcomes. It's about on making them make sense.


Outcomes are meant to be socially meaningful achievements that result from your work. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and nonprofits need to clearly identify and define those achievements.


Unlike the more self-evident nature of many outputs (i.e. providing food, clothing, money, counseling sessions, etc), outcomes can be vague and conceptual in nature. What do “stable housing”, “academic achievement”, “self-sufficiency”, “environmental justice” mean? There are many valid definitions of each of those outcomes, and you need to make it clear what you mean when you use such terms.


The importance of this cannot be overstated. Clearly defined outcomes help your team track outcomes consistently and allow others to understand your work.


Imagine that your nonprofit provides a job training program. You want participants to get jobs by going through workshops, coaching, and skills training.


You might have the following outcome: participants get good jobs


That’s a little vague, but you can work with it. This outcome is quantifiable and closely connected to our outputs. You can reasonably claim: “We achieved XYZ important thing with 25 participants.”


But you aren't done yet. How do you define “good”? How do you define “job”?


If you tell your donors “we helped 25 people get good jobs” and they ask “well what’s a good job?” you need to be able to tell them something like:


It’s full time, it pays at least $17 an hour, it offers benefits and PTO, there are promotion opportunities...we only count this as a success if they keep the job for more than 3 months.


There's no right answer to how you define each outcome. After all, a “good job” in San Francisco might require a wage of $30 per hour and that same job in Atlanta might be $18 per hour. But, the important thing is that everyone knows what a “good job” means for your organization.


Rule 4: Pick outcomes that match your scale and desired level of impact


Your organization has to decide where it will focus its measurement. You can track the things you achieve with individuals (e.g. 10 adults got good jobs), you can focus on broader impacts (e.g. we increased voter registration rates in the community by 10%), or both. The outcomes you measure should be consistent with your scale and your desired level of impact.


Here are a few ways to think about your outcomes to match your work:

  • Individual Level Outcomes: This is probably the simplest way to measure and track outcomes and is appropriate for many organizations. For example, you might track the number of students that you helped complete college debt free or the number of families you help obtain stable housing.

  • Geographic Area Outcomes: Your work tries to create changes in a zip code or census block. For example, your outcome might be to increase the rate of voter registration in zip code 12345. Or, you might want to reduce the rate of infant mortality in a county.

  • Demographic Group Outcomes: Instead of just focusing on a zip code, your outcome might be to increase the rate of voter registration among low income households. Or, your focus might increasing college completion rates among military veterans.

Even if you have a broader focus, you can (and often should) still count individual level outcomes. Large organizations like Harlem Children’s Zone and Celebrate One have community-wide scopes and continue to track individual level outcomes.


The point is to be realistic. If your resources and program are best suited to serve individuals and not something broader, then focus your outcomes on the individual level.


Rule 5: Pick outcomes that are Important and Meaningful


The outcomes you choose should be important and meaningful.


1. Important - an outcome is important if it’s aligned with your mission or organizational purpose. If your organization has a workforce development program, then “person gets a good job” is an appropriate outcome. However, “child is reading at grade level” is not relevant to that program.


2. Meaningful - an outcome is meaningful if it is something people inside and outside of your organization can easily understand. People can “get it” with only a modest amount of explanation. A meaningful outcome is well defined and plausibly connected with your outputs. An outcome like "child is at grade-level reading" is meaningful enough to grasp easily. In contrast, "child's standardized reading test score is at least the 55th percentile" is meaningful to some people, but would be confusing to many others.


By picking important and meaningful outcomes, you limit the number of outcomes you will track, and focus on the ones that best represent the work you’re doing. A byproduct of this is that your staff will more easily understand your organization's priorities. It's also easier to explain your work to supporters.


Focus on a Few Great Outcomes to Track


Defining and tracking the "right" outcomes is challenging. Ideally, your outcomes will help you 1) tell your story and 2) understand & improve your programs over time. These 6 rules will help you define new outcomes and review existing outcomes so that your data investments are worthwhile.


Finally, it's important to focus on quality, not quantity. More is not necessarily better with outcomes. Using a small number highly informative outcomes will help your organization learn about its work while not overwhelming your staff with data collection requirements.



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.




Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.



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