Why Outcomes Matter

By Zachary S. Kester, JD, LLM, CFRM, at Charitable Allies

Many nonprofit organizations are pretty good at tracking activity data, such as how many children they served, how many meals they served, or how many people completed a class or training offered.

Increasingly, these numbers alone are becoming insufficient to secure funding for programming efforts. Though “what we do” (outputs) certainly matters, many funders want to know the “why it matters” (outcomes) behind the programming they support.

Outputs measure what we do. Outcomes measure effectiveness and behaviors changed.

Outcomes can be notoriously difficult to measure. As nonprofit leaders, we spend almost all of our time delivering our programming. We deliver meals, work in the clinic, and build the homes. We naturally think in terms of outputs. Consciously thinking in outcomes requires that we slow down, assess our programing and its effectiveness, and implement tools to help better measure effectiveness.

Here’s why they matter. Outcomes help:

  • Tell your story more effectively
  • Demonstrate your value to funders
  • Get clarity around the organization’s purpose
  • Measure the effectiveness of your programming
  • Avoid unintended consequences

Recently, I worked with a food pantry on outcome measurements. Food pantries can be notoriously difficult to identify and measure outcomes. We ultimately identified that just over six percent of those using the pantry used it 10 times a year or more (a household can visit up to monthly), and under 20 percent used it five to nine times a month.

This meant that nearly 75 percent of patrons utilized the services of the pantry 4 times or less per year—when their car broke down, when a medical issue arose, or at another similar time.

We were also able to put systems in place to measure whether this would change over time, and whether it would change due to referrals or other activities of the pantry.

Ultimately, however, this pantry’s staff was able to explain to naysayers or potential funders that it was not “creating dependency,” but instead meeting a need in a way that moved people towards independence.

Oftentimes when I begin discussing outcomes with some nonprofit managers, I hear excuses about why they should not have to take the steps necessary to begin measuring outcomes. These excuses range from the cost, to being pulled away from programming, to believing that outcomes really are not important, among others.

At the end of the day, these managers need to decide if they care enough about the people they serve and about their programming to do what it takes to make it better.

Attorney Zac Kester provides generalist and strategic nonprofit legal and consulting services. He holds a Master of Laws, a post-law school advanced degree, in which he studied the unique needs of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. His legal and consulting career has focused on nonprofit organizations.

With highly experienced legal, accounting and training personnel, Charitable Allies provides all manner of legal and educational services for boards, officers, management and staff of myriad charities throughout the sector. From basic one-time questions about a single matter to training for boards and officers to complex reorganization or merger of activities, Charitable Allies is your go-to cost-effective provider of legal services to nonprofit organizations.