Stop Measuring Activities and Start Measuring Outcomes

Posted on The Chronicle of Philanthropy by Jason Saul on 5/29/14.

In my 20-plus years working in the nonprofit world, one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen nonprofits make is measuring activities instead of outcomes. I understand why: Measuring activities is easier, and nonprofits have limited time to dedicate to measurement. But measuring activities isn’t going to help nonprofits demonstrate their value and secure more funds.

When groups measure program efforts—teaching, training, negotiating, feeding, researching, and so on—they’re measuring activities. Outcomes, on the other hand, are the results of those activities: changed awareness, behavior, condition, or status. There are outcomes that pertain to individuals (like increased graduation rates or improved literacy), organizational outcomes (like more revenue or a better reputation), and systemic outcomes (like changed policies or greater investment).

To illustrate the difference between outcomes and activities, I think of a story from advisory work I did with a community foundation that was trying to measure the impact of its grants. At one of our weekly grant-review meetings, a program officer suggested that her latest grant was pretty straightforward and didn’t require much discussion: The grantee had requested $25,000 to purchase a new van. The program officer insisted that “the grantee either bought the van or didn’t. It isn’t hard to measure.”

I pressed, wanting to know why the van was purchased.  To deliver stereo equipment? To move stolen goods?  To sell ice cream? Turns out, the program officer requested the van to transport elderly citizens from rural communities to hospitals to receive preventative care.  The real outcome of the grant wasn’t buying the van but providing the elderly with increased access to health care.

When we start by identifying the outcome, we can consider the most efficient ways to achieve that outcome. In the case of increasing health-care access for the elderly, options like train passes, bus fares, or even setting up local clinics are valid alternatives to consider.

As your organization works to make its impact, my advice for avoiding the trap of tracking activities is to remember the following principles :

Outcomes are abstract and complex. Since activities are tangible and countable, like the number of website page views, many organizations focus on counting those rather than measuring more meaningful change.

Outcomes are difficult to control and take time to produce. Activities can occur quickly and are easy to control: Either you bought a van or you didn’t. But outcomes are subject to external forces and can require years to be realized.

Outcomes speak to value. Activity tracking demonstrates accountability and compliance, while outcomes demonstrate the meaningful change your organization creates.

It is crucial for your organization to determine which outcomes it can produce and to measure your contribution toward those outcomes. This demonstration of value shows supporters how important your work is and can help you bring in more money so you can make an even greater impact.

Jason Saul is the founder and CEO of Mission Measurement, a consulting firm that specializes in measuring social outcomes.