How to Measure Non-Profit Outcomes

by Stacey Barr

Whether it’s community development, environmental protection, or human rights, non-profits exist to make an impact. But are non-profit outcomes measurable in any meaningful way?

For non-profits, Dollars Raised is important to track. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/pinkomelet

To be measurable, an outcome has to be observable in some way. That means that we have some way of detecting its existence in the real world. Of course, this also means that if an outcome isn’t measurable, it’s because we have no way of observing it happening.

What’s the point of investing time and money into outcomes we can’t ever really know are being achieved? Setting an immeasurable outcome is like aiming a sailboat at the ocean. If the journey is all about adventure, that’s fine. But not if the promise of a specific destination was made.

Non-profit organisations have a few challenges with their outcomes.

The ways in which non-profit outcomes are written make them unnecessarily immeasurable. Take these mission statements for examples of how tricky it can be to nail the measures of non-profit outcomes:

  • “We provide the housing and services necessary to help homeless individuals return to a productive and meaningful life.”
  • “Advocate for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential.”
  • “Inspire positive change and deliver evidence-based approaches to minimise alcohol and drug harm.”

Like for so many non-profits, these outcomes are broad, intangible and complex. But it doesn’t mean that non-profits can’t measure their impact.

It’s not a measurement problem, it’s an outcome problem.

In their 2001 McKinsey article, Sawhill and Williamson suggest three ways that non-profits can remove these measurability challenges with outcomes. I’ve paraphrased them as follows, and placed them in the order in which I think it’s more logical to test their appropriateness for any given non-profit organisation:

  1. More narrowly define the outcomes, but not so much that it oversimplifies them, so they are more easily observable. For example, homelessness is about many things, only a few of which are physical health, mental health, safety, and crime. But what if it can be focused on just two narrow outcomes, such as everyone has a permanent home and everyone has an income?
  2. Define the outcomes within their circle of direct influence, as observable microgoals that collectively contribute to the broader outcome. For example, protecting childrens’ rights is a complex global challenge. But what if each local agency of the non-profit organisation focused on the
    top microgoals for their region, such as girls’ education or child mortality or child safety?
  3. Research to identify which activities are lead indicators of their outcomes, and measure the lead indicators. For example, alcohol and drug harm might be too costly to measure directly. But what if the focus could be on evidence-based approaches proven to work, like pharmacotherapy and 12-step facilitation therapy?

Meeting the challenge of measuring intangible non-profit outcomes doesn’t start with a more determined quest to find meaningful measures. Meaningful measures are the product of a logical series of steps to quantify the most feasible and convincing evidence of observable outcomes.

Practice the skill of articulating observable outcomes.

Meeting the challenge starts with getting the outcomes articulated as clearly and succinctly and observably as possible. Dean Spitzer and I did this together, to make “health of families”, an outcome of a ministry client of Dean’s, more observable and thereby more measurable. Our conversation illustrates just how important dialogue is in articulating non-profit outcomes more measurably.

“Building the Kingdom of God, that’s what a church or a ministry professes to be interested in. But their measures tend to emphasize the costs, or what I call the Kingdom of Me… And what I want is organizations to broaden the aperture and think about how they’re really contributing to society. I believe that we need to start off with the value that we want to create, and then move from there to the other metrics. But I see that too often we start off with counting the inputs, the process, and the outputs, which don’t provide any real value… We decided that a good outcome to focus on was the health of families, and the reason is because families are the core of a healthy society.” – Dean Spitzer

The recording of this conversation, including the visuals of using the PuMP Measurability Tests technique to guide the conversation, is below. As you watch it, notice how we used option 2 from the list above, to articulate “health of families” into specific microgoals.

For non-profits, Dollars Raised is important to track. But what’s the point, if the outcomes those dollars should create are too intangible to track? [tweet this]

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