October 3, 2014

Outcomes Thinking: How to Measure Your Success

Outcomes management, performance management, evaluation, assessments… You may hear a lot of terms thrown around by the sector related to capturing your organization’s impact.  At the heart of these conversations is the real question: are you achieving your mission? You are likely already collecting data related to your mission; a report that NTEN launched earlier this year reported that 75% of the nonprofits surveyed were collecting data to evaluate their programs. But are you set up to use that data effectively? Do you really understand how well you are helping your constituents/clients/community?

If you are new to the topics mentioned above, performance management is the discipline of making good decisions with data; it is the foundation for outcomes management. Outcomes management is the science of managing to stewarding specific social results and helping you understand whether your programs and services are effectively contributing to your underlying mission.

Tackling Outcomes Management

Outcomes management isn’t just about tracking data using the right system (although that is important!): it’s a comprehensive approach to your organization’s culture and operations. This can seem like an overwhelming endeavor to undertake, but with a structured process, you can help your organization move down the path of outcomes thinking by developing an outcomes management strategy, structuring a technology system, and building an organizational culture with a strong outcomes management focus. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Develop your knowledge of outcomes management. This topic could be a person’s life work, but you can take bite-size steps. Look internally first, starting with your Theory of Change. How will you have the impact you describe in your mission? What information do you need to measure each step of the way toward your mission? Next, you can study best practices in outcomes management across the sector. There are a number of great resources for this effort, such as Leap of Reason by Mario Morino, The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox by Robert Penna, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review.
  2. Build systems and processes for outcomes management. Whether your data is in spreadsheets or a customized CRM system, learning about outcomes will likely uncover ways you can better manage them. Beginning with your processes, you’ll want to identify what data you need to collect, who will collect it, and how it will be collected. With documented procedures, you can assess your current systems and how they need to adapt to enable your outcomes strategies.
  3. Lead your organization with an outcomes focus. Successful organizations start their outcomes management journey because they want to see measurable change for their clients and constituents. Leaders of your organization must be committed to driving an outcomes mindset throughout your organization. Based on that example, staff will need to help determine the data to track, input the data into your systems, and use those data to make changes in your programs. No matter the role, each team member plays a part in ensuring that your organization manages outcomes. That said, organizational leadership is also crucial.

Learning from the Community

The path described above isn’t always straightforward or linear. You’ll likely tackle aspects of each step in parallel. In addition, you might adapt your approach as you see how other organizations track their results. For instance, several of our nonprofit clients contributed to a report by Idealware, featuring case studies of how nonprofits are continuing to evolve their approach to using data to improve their programs.

Both Teach for All and The International Youth Foundation are aggregating data from their partners across the world so that programs can compare results and learn how to improve. The Cara Program collects a wealth of data in order to understand how clients are overcoming poverty and homelessness. As Database Analyst Andrea Cote mentions in the report, “We definitely use the data to identify any areas we want to change. If we’re proposing program changes or have to shift our approach because of external or internal factors, we have a bunch of cases where we look to data to help support that. A lot of times the initial idea for change comes from someone observing something and thinking a change should be made. We’ll then work together to see how our existing data supports that.”

These case studies, among others in the report, provide real-life examples of organizations using data to make a bigger impact. Like your mission, outcomes management is a journey. You will learn, build these lessons into your processes, adopt the new and updated systems, and then enter this iteration cycle again. Each step will bring you closer to realizing your mission and making greater change.

Rem Hoffmann
REM HOFFMANN is President and CEO of Exponent Partners, an information technology consulting firm dedicated to improving nonprofit performance. A career entrepreneur, Rem is also an information technology thought leader and business strategist who has built successful professional services and consulting practices in the commercial, government, and nonprofit markets. He strives to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the nonprofit sector through strategic business planning, innovative business process development, careful and creative information systems design, and introduction of innovative technologies. Since 2003, Rem has focused on introducing 'on-demand' computing to the nonprofit sector and has been driving its adoption for programmatic business applications and nonprofit performance management ever since. As an extension of his vision for creating a stronger social sector community, Rem serves on the board of the Center for What Works. The center provides research-proven tools and resources to help nonprofits reach their desired outcomes, goals, and missions.
Interest Categories: Data, Evaluation, Program
Tags: Data, Evaluation, program evaluation