Measurable outcomes is a phrase we hear a lot in nonprofit management. It comes from the practice of outcomes management or performance management – i.e. “What gets measured gets done” – and gets used a lot in planning, grant writing, and evaluation. We want measurable outcomes because they help us set achievable goals (think SMART goals) and show that we achieved them. However, there is a time and place for everything. Sarah and I sometimes see the idea of measurable outcomes pop up when it isn’t useful. Adhering too strictly to the idea of measurable outcomes can be counterproductive for nonprofits.
Measurable outcomes are only one type of outcome.
During one of my trainings, we were discussing how a theory of change uses the language of outcomes. I said my piece and we dug into an example. After a bit one participant said, “But nothing on that theory of change is an outcome.” Her tone was definitive. After a flash of internal panic, I asked her to say a little more. She added, “Nothing on there is measurable.” Aha! This participant assumed that all outcomes must be measurable. If something is not measurable, it’s not an outcome (or at least not one we want). This is a common misperception.1 Really, whether or not something is an outcome is separate from whether or not it is measurable.
The problem with marrying outcomes to measurement is that many nonprofits tend to think of measurement in black and white terms. We can either measure the outcome or we can’t. Outcomes we can’t measure are not measurable. This is a narrow view. For example, does a small nonprofit have the ability to measure its program’s long-term outcomes on the lives of participants? Maybe not. Could it be measured with enough resources and expertise? Certainly. More importantly, could parts of the outcome be measurable in a way that shows progress towards the full outcome? Usually yes. Outcomes have many degrees of measurability. For any nonprofit there are many types of outcomes: currently measurable outcomes, partially measurable outcomes, and not yet measurable outcomes.
Measurable outcomes limit what a nonprofit is trying to achieve to what it can currently measure.
Sarah and I often help our clients write their outcomes. We define an outcome as a change we want to see. Our clients think for awhile, come up with good ideas, and then say “Yeah, but how would we measure that?” Their initial excitement in naming an outcome deflates because they don’t think it is measurable. They think, “We want to achieve this outcome, but we can’t say we will because it’s not measurable.” The concept of measurable is limiting the outcomes they feel comfortable naming. In this situation, we try to help our clients remember two things.
A nonprofit has an impact whether it can measure it or not. If nonprofits only describe outcomes they can currently measure, then they aren’t telling the full story of the outcomes they believe (usually with very good reason) they are achieving. Nonprofits have always known that their impact is not a tree falling in the forest. Important outcomes happen even if no one is there to measure them (and this is the greatest source of frustration when nonprofits undertake evaluation to measure outcomes). When we help clients name outcomes for their organization or program, we encourage them to describe all their intended outcomes without worrying about whether those outcomes are measurable (or sometimes even fully attainable). We aren’t ignoring measurement. It’s important! But, we are putting it off for a bit. Nonprofits should focus on describing meaningful outcomes first and worry about how to measure them afterwards.
A nonprofit’s intended outcomes have value whether they are measurable or not. Naming a goal or outcome is the first step towards achieving it and nonprofits have always dreamed big. Setting broad or long-term outcomes helps a nonprofit provide direction to its work and illuminate the “why.” We shouldn’t discourage this. When adhering too strictly to measurable outcomes, nonprofits risk limiting themselves to what they can measure. This tendency can hinder nonprofits with high ambition but low capacity to measure. It also hinders nonprofits with program outcomes that are inherently harder to measure, e.g. personal development programs or programs that sit at the intersection of many related societal issues. Not being able to figure out how to measure an outcome shouldn’t keep an organization from striving for it.
When Should We Rescue Outcomes from Measurement?
The intent behind measurable outcomes is good. The practice of measuring our outcomes helps us be accountable to what we are trying to achieve and learn along the way. We don’t want to lose that. But thinking about measurable outcomes a little differently can benefit nonprofits.
In our work, we don’t talk about measurable outcomes. We define outcomes and indicators. An outcome is a change we want to see. An indicator details how we will know it when we see it. In this way, we split outcomes from their measurement. There are two big advantages to this.
By using outcomes and indicators, nonprofits can show progress towards big outcomes. One of our client’s outcomes is that youth understand what they are truly capable of. This is a big and important outcome. Their indicator is the percentage of youth who leave the program feeling better about their ability to receive a high school diploma. This is measurable.2 Feeling better about getting a high school diploma is an indicator of understanding what you are truly capable of. We could think of other indicators, but they chose this one at this time and it provides meaningful evidence that the organization is making progress on their big outcome.
By using outcomes and indicators, nonprofits of different capacities can share the same outcome but use different measurements. Two nonprofits, one large and one small, may share the outcome of a stronger community. Their intentions are the same, but their capacities are different. Their shared outcome has many possible indicators. Two indicators of a stronger community could be:
- Increased number of people participating in community events.
- Decrease in crime.
These indicators are not black and white. They are on a spectrum. The first is easier but less convincing. The small nonprofit may be able to measure participation in their community events. The second is more convincing but a lot harder. A well-resourced nonprofit may be able to show a causal relationship between their program and a decrease in crime. Both are indicators that show evidence of success, but we wouldn’t expect the small nonprofit to show the second and we would be disappointed if the large nonprofit only showed the first. Both the small and large nonprofit are working towards a stronger community, but the way they show progress is different from each other and appropriate to their capacity.
Furthermore, any one nonprofit has different capacities at different stages in its development. Perhaps our small nonprofit is on the rise. It wants to be a large nonprofit and has a plan to get there. The nonprofit can be strategic about the indicators of its outcomes. As it attracts more resources (and perhaps new requirements), the nonprofit can keep its outcome, but change the indicator to something more robust. With new and stronger evidence, the nonprofit can continue to grow.
Measurable outcomes is an important idea that sometimes gets in the way of what we are really trying to achieve. Should we always rescue outcomes from measurement? I don’t think there is any harm in thinking about outcomes first and measurement second, but it’s not always necessary. If thinking about outcomes and measurement together helps you and your nonprofit move forward, do it! If you find yourself getting frustrated with or limited by measurable outcomes, try focusing on outcomes first and then writing indicators.
- The idea of SMART goals especially has contributed to this perception that all outcomes should be measurable. If we are going to make goals, they had better be SMART. What’s the opposite? DUMB goals? But even the author of SMART goals recognized that they should not be used at all times and that all goals need not fit all five criteria. Read more here.
- Isn’t their indicator just a measurable outcome? Sure! We call it an indicator because it in itself isn’t the goal of the organization and its programs. It’s just one part.