When nonprofits are in the trenches tackling large social challenges, it can be difficult to see the little details that make up their programs. In a time where social service organizations are struggling to maintain the resources needed to sustain operations, evaluating a program’s success can be a low priority. This can turn a mission-driven organization into one without a roadmap for the future.
There are several ways to lose sight of details:
- During budget discussions, extra money may become available to use for programming. If a program has been successful before, it can seem like a simple decision to put more money into it and expanding it without first re-evaluating its effectiveness.
- If the program is new, it may seem logical that the program will make an impact because it was designed to tackle one of your current issues, but that may not actually be the case.
- If the program is struggling, it may be difficult to understand why.
It’s hard to make the best choice if there isn’t a way to logically identify and measure a program’s plan and performance.
Logic Models Chart the Course
Logic models are an ideal way to measure and evaluate a program’s progress. A logic model lays out the connections between a program’s purpose and its desired results. Early adopters, like the United Way, use logic models advantageously to help it structure the building blocks needed to deliver on its mission.
A logic model looks similar to a flowchart, in that each field leads to the next field. The model is composed of the following elements:
- Inputs are the resources needed to create and implement a program. An input can include staff members, instruction modules, volunteers and volunteer training, etc.
- Activities are actions that take place during the program. This includes conducting a lecture, providing a volunteer with a mentor and more.
- Outputs are tangible and specific objects that are created by the activities for the program’s participants; in this case, outputs would be the number of youth in lectures or with mentors.
- Outcomes are the changes an organization expects to see in participants – both immediately and over time. They are measurable and specific. Examples include increased knowledge of risks of smoking (initial), youth quitting smoking (intermediate) and longer life expectancy (long-term.)
Creating the Boxes
The model can be read like a series of “if, then” statements; if you have the inputs identified, you can figure out what activities would logically come from them. For example, if 100 parents at-risk for child abuse receive counseling, an illogical conclusion would be “there is an aware ness about factory farming.”
When developing a logic model, you can either begin at the “inputs” and work toward the “outcomes,” or go in reverse and start with the desired “outcomes.” If you start at “inputs” and work forward, you can clearly see that all steps are present to achieve the outcome you desire. By going in reverse, you can begin by concentrating on your mission and then determine piece by piece what actions or resources are needed to make that goal succeed. Both are valid techniques and the best choice depends on the goals of the program.
Strategies for Using Logic Models Successfully
Logic models can help your organization in a variety of ways, including:
- Understanding the steps necessary to succeed. A logic model requires you to re-examine the goal behind the program, why the program is needed, how it will be created and maintained and what role it has over the long term. These components of planning have likely been considered at the start of the program by board members and community leaders. However, aligning the answers to the questions in a physical model allows for greater comprehension and analysis.
- Identifying similar elements when collaborating. In some cases, collaborating with other like-minded organizations can produce the most impact on a central issue. If one nonprofit is considering whether they should align with another, the process will be easier if they already know how both sides can effectively integrate their services. If each organization has a logic model in place, it can be simple to measure whether programs have a greater impact when integrated or if they are too separate in their goals and outcomes to be efficient.
- Keeping impact in mind. When board members make the decision to change a program, there are many questions that may need to be asked, such as: do you have enough people to maintain the program? Is the program successful, and if so, how can it be mimicked in new programs? By creating and observing a logic model based around the organization’s core goal, board members and leaders can see if their activities align with their current input or if their goals can be achieved with the activities being conducted. From there, each individual aspect of the program can be evaluated to determine if it should be expanded, removed or revised.
- Showing how funding is creating tangible results. A logic model is specific, so it forces the organization to have a level of accountability for their planning. Investors donate more money at a more consistent level if they see how exactly the organization is making an impact. By connecting the logic model with specifics on how the program improves the quality of life in their immediate community (labeled as “long-term outcome” in the model), donors will be more interested in promoting the organization. Donors should be notified frequently of changes in the model, program structure or financial status through emails, newsletters or an Annual Report.
- Narrowing down what data you need to track. When a nonprofit organization puts a data management system into place, it can become tempting to input and track every piece of data possible to ensure that nothing important is being forgotten. Similarly, when faced with measuring data for the first time, a nonprofit may believe that each piece of data contributes to determining program impact. A logic model can help guide the organization, by clearly showing what information may be beneficial to track in order to identify successful outcomes. For example, a logic model may be created for a tutoring program, which is aiming for improvement in math grades. The specific components of data, or metrics, that would be important may include participant attendance, program dosage and test scores over time. Narrowing the focus to those metrics and reporting change over time will provide the nonprofit and their donors with more accurate insight into the program’s impact.
Outcome Measurement is in Your Reach
Creating a comprehensive logic model takes time and staff, especially if it is part of a greater outcome measurement plan. Re-evaluate frequently to determine if our model should be updated to reflect current programs.
Outcome management doesn’t have to be difficult, however. Logic models help determine if a nonprofit, community group or foundation is making an impact and on areas to focus to better align resources with your objectives. Those without a clear measurement strategy will be left behind.
Ananda Roberts is the President and founder of nFocus Solutions, leading provider of outcome measurement and performance management technology for nonprofits, communities and the U.S. government.