There are very few people I know who get excited about program evaluation. So many of us think of outcomes as something we have to consider when we are writing a grant and we worry about how we can track and prove to a funder that we have met our goals.
I think the world is changing. I know I have changed. I now get excited about having outcomes for our organization, about tracking them, and about talking about our results. The world is changing because more funders and investors are interested in impact. They want to invest their money in organizations that are making a difference and can prove it. There are many new writings about high performing organizations, impact, and how to measure impact.
For me the book that made the most difference in my attitude about outcomes and impact is Mark Friedman’s Trying Hard is Not Good Enough. What I learned from reading this book is that we should only be measuring what we control. One organization cannot reduce poverty in the United States; yet, we often feel that we are supposed to achieve these grand results because our mission statement says that is our goal. Each organization, regardless of its mission, has a piece of the process that leads to the grand outcome. So, what is your piece? What services do you provide over which you have control and which you can measure?
For example, at our organization, the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay, we teach board members and staff members of other nonprofits the skills to run an effective nonprofit business. We can teach skills and provide best practice education. We can provide the best teacher, with the most relevant information delivered in an engaging and interactive manner. We, however, cannot control what each nonprofit does with the information they receive once they leave our training center. We also cannot follow each nonprofit for months. Therefore, we measure each student’s perception of the quality of each program, whether they increased their skill or knowledge, and whether they perceived value for the time and money invested among other things. We use the student’s rating because that is what we have available. They are the only ones who can tell us whether knowledge and skill increased as a result of our work.
We are then able to use this data from every single student about every single training program and draw some conclusions that our work contributes to building a strong nonprofit sector.
It is very liberating to have clarity on what can be controlled and measured and to keep the proper perspective about the impact your work has on the overall problem you are trying to improve or change. With clarity it is easy to demonstrate to donors and funders that you are in control of your work and of your outcomes. It is easy to know where you need to improve and to show where you are doing well if you are measuring those outcomes over which you have control.
The most important thing is to determine clearly what it is that you control and how best to measure those things. The next most important thing is to use the data you obtain to improve your work and to make a great case for support.