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Measuring Outcomes: Does Your Organization Make a Difference?

By now, most health and social service organizations have been asked by at least one funder to report on the outcomes of their work. Arts, cultural, sport, environmental, and other organizations that have not yet had to face the challenge, will no doubt have to soon. Stated simply, “outcomes” are the differences organizations make in people’s lives — better health, less stress, better school performance, lower poverty, increased knowledge, etc. — as opposed to “outputs” which are measured in terms of the amount of work organizations do — clients served, sessions held, classes finished, etc.

Organizational outcomes should relate directly to the organization’s mission. In fact, measuring organizational outcomes is the best way to determine whether progress is being made towards the organization’s primary purpose for being. And it is the board’s responsibility to ensure that the organization is continually moving towards its mission.

Historically, many charities behaved as though what they did was good “a priori”. Charities do good things. We are a charity. Therefore what we do is good. Although this logical syllogism may apply to charitable goals — by definition, what a charity wants to do has to be for the good of the community or the organization won’t be approved as a charity by government — a charity’s ability to realize those goals through its programs and services relies on actual performance, not on logic.

It is the Board’s legal responsibility, therefore, to ensure that the ideals for which the organization received charitable tax status are being achieved — or at least that they are coming closer to being achieved.

So, how does a Board make sure that the organization is achieving something meaningful? First, it is the Board’s responsibility to ensure that the organization is designed to succeed. In other words, it has to ensure that the policies and procedures that are necessary for success are in place, and are implemented.

Next, it has to ensure that the organization has identified measurable indicators of success. The Board has to ask the question: “How will we know if we have succeeded?” Not “How busy were we?”, but “Did we improve people’s lives in a way that we can measure?”

Realistically, this task is easier for some organizations than for others. An organization that has as its mission “Reducing the number of teen pregnancies in our community”, or “Increasing the number of teens who graduate from high school” has a pretty easy job of identifying indicators of success. But what if you run an art gallery, or a hospice, or a drop-in for homeless adults?

For cultural organizations, activities such as reaching out to new ethno-cultural groups, interesting youth in the arts, tying activities to school curricula, translating information for major language groups, and many others can lead to identifiable and measurable outcomes.

Organizations that support those who are dying and their families, can look to the way they offer a comfortable atmosphere, the extent to which they help people come to terms with the inevitable, and their ability to support all those affected, as outcomes that can be measured.

Drop-ins for people who may appear once and never again, or who come only infrequently may be able to take some credit if nobody dies outside on a bitterly cold or oppressively hot day, if they are able to provide the individual with necessities like shoes or a sleeping bag, or if they can connect an individual to another service.

In principle, every organization should be able to identify at least a few outcomes that are meaningful to them and help to answer the question, “Did we make a difference?”


Ernie Ginsler

About the Contributor: Ernie Ginsler

Ernie Ginsler has spent the majority of his working life in the broad nonprofit sector.  As a social planner in Halifax, Toronto, and Waterloo Region, he has been involved in organizational planning and development as a direct-service staff member and Executive Director, as a board member, and as a university professor.

In 1997, after working for a year in Toronto as Vice-President Allocations and Community Services for the United Way of Greater Toronto, Ernie founded Ginsler & Associates Inc., a full service consulting firm assisting non-profit organizations, their consumers, funders, and donors.

Mr. Ginsler has a reputation for sound research, clear writing, and an ability to work easily with Board and staff, service users, and other stakeholders.  He has written several hands-on publications for non-profits covering such areas as strategic planning (with sales of well over 2,500 copies), collaborative service provision, partnership development, hiring and evaluating CEOs, merging non-profits, board orientation, and a guide to donors.  He has extensive experience in organizational development, needs assessments, feasibility studies, strategic planning, evaluation, developing and facilitating board development workshops in such areas as board governance, running effective meetings, the legal responsibilities of boards, board-staff roles and relationships, board evaluation, and hiring and evaluating the executive director.

Ginsler & Associates Inc. prides itself in providing consulting services that are grounded in extensive practical experience in service planning and delivery in a wide variety of service-providing organizations.  At various times, Ernie has taught the courses on “Poverty in Canada” and “Community Research and Data Analysis” at the Wilfrid Laurier Faculty of Social Work He has also taught “Introduction to Social Work” and “Canadian Social Welfare” at Renison College University.  He is a popular guest lecturer and a former adjunct faculty member with the University of Waterloo in social policy, urban planning, environmental studies, and health sciences, where his lectures and courses combine his sound theoretical knowledge with his extensive practical experience.

Mr. Ginsler’s publications on organizational governance and planning have been reprinted in numerous management publications.  He is also a contributor to CharityChannel’s Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review.  His newest book, Board Stiff: The board member’s guide to nonprofit governance, is in broad circulation.

One Response to Measuring Outcomes: Does Your Organization Make a Difference?

  1. Bernadette Wright February 18, 2016 at 5:54 am #

    Yes, and in addition to looking at “Did we get the outcomes we expected?” remember to also look at “What outcomes did we get, including any unexpected outcomes?” Clarifying with stakeholders what the expected outcomes are is very important, because expected outcomes may change over time, and stakeholders may have different ideas of what the expected outcomes are.

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