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Managing to Outcomes: Why the Fuss?

Posted by Sherri Wolson

managing-to-outcomes-why-the-fuss.jpgLast week, I listened as SVP partner Lowell Weiss told the story of his experience tutoring and mentoring a boy in Washington, D.C. Lowell spent eight years befriending and working with this boy. Over the time they spent together, the boy’s reading improved vastly. Yet, during their time together, Lowell had a pit in his stomach. Lowell worried whether he and the program were really doing everything they could do to help the children they served and whether their time and resources were well spent.

These concerns helped motivate Lowell in his work at Cascade Philanthropy Advisors and in his role as co-editor of the book, Leap of Reason: Measuring to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity. Recently, Lowell led a discussion of this book for SVP partners and friends.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure how many people would show up to discuss outcomes measurement when they could be holiday shopping or spending time with their families, yet the discussion was well attended by Executive Directors, board members of current and past investees, SVP partners and other friends. This turnout, coupled with the fact that 25,000 copies of the book have been printed or downloaded, demonstrate that outcomes measurement is top of mind for many folks in the nonprofit field these days.

Simply put, managing to outcomes means defining organizational goals, measuring performance on those goals, and managing based on those measurements. Managing to outcomes requires an organization to be very clear about what it seeks to accomplish and how it will measure its progress, and to decide that management and resource allocation decisions will be based on those measurements.

The outcomes measured must be carefully selected. Organizations need to decide what outcomes information will improve the quality of service for clients and measure that information. They need to avoid the temptation to measure what’s easy. They also need to avoid basing the measurements exclusively on what funders require.

Similarly, funders need to be careful that what they require is really helpful to the organization. In fact, Lowell considers the book an impassioned plea to funders to think about what information nonprofits really need in order to deliver.

So what is all the fuss about? Why are SVP and Lowell encouraging a conversation about managing to outcomes?

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

First, we realize that good intentions and anecdotes are not enough to prove that a program is working. The folks I know who work in the nonprofit sector are incredibly passionate and hard working. Still, sometimes the most well intentioned people and programs are not achieving the results they seek. In fact, sometimes they are actually causing harm. The book provides the example of the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC), an organization that added a domestic violence module to their parenting program. The purpose of the discussion was to teach that domestic violence is not acceptable and there are safe ways to escape domestic violence situations. However, a survey given before and after the program demonstrated that after participating in the program, more parents thought domestic violence was an appropriate expression of love and an accepted part of Latino culture. In other words, the program was increasing the rate of domestic violence acceptance! Armed with this knowledge, LAYC was able to modify the program. Outcomes measurement allowed the program to change course quickly.

With Funding, Data Matters

The second reason why managing to outcomes matters is because in an era of scarce resources, proven outcomes will be necessary to secure funding. In this economy, where nonprofits are required to do more with less, they need to show governments and funders evidence of their effectiveness. They need data to show they are not only meeting needs, but also making a real difference. Lowell considers this point in time an inflection moment for nonprofits. Organizations that take matters into their own hands and provide a compelling case that they are making a difference and saving the government money will be at a real competitive advantage.

Making the Cultural Shift

Third, nonprofits need encouragement to make this shift. As SVP partner Tim Schottman noted, it’s hard for boards to be visionary in tough times. When the economy contracts and funding sources decrease, boards are focused on short-term cost cutting. Lowell agreed and said he hoped Leap of Reason would inspire boards to be more visionary and to have the courage to make investments in tough times. Lowell also noted that starting to measure outcomes doesn’t require a large investment in technology. Sometimes measuring outcomes can be as simple as recording on a white board. Measuring outcomes does, however, require a cultural shift. It’s a matter of culture, mindset and leadership, Lowell stated. Changing an organizational culture and possibly adding an additional burden on staff can be difficult. Leaders must portray this task as important; this tool can help nonprofits wisely use resources and give confidence that their time and efforts are well spent.

Nonprofits ask donors for money, volunteers for time and communities for their trust and participation. Proving the value of these investments by measuring and managing to outcomes will give everyone confidence that the resources are being used wisely.

So, what do you think about measuring to outcomes? Should SVP be doing more to support outcomes measurement? In what way?

– Sherri Wolson

Leap of Reason is available for download at www.leapofreason.org.

Sherri Wolson

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