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?”