Measure Activities or Measure Outcomes? And the Answer is . . .

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bullseyeby Rick Ybarra

The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health has been intentional about focusing on outcomes. In conversing with many non-profits, it is a concept they still find quite challenging (and I must admit I’m still working on it myself). Jason Saul’s blog in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on May 28 titled, “Measuring Up: Advice for evaluating a charity’s work” is a great read, explaining the difference between activities (or outputs) and outcomes and offers an “A-ha! moment” in discriminating between the two. As funders, we often hear about stories from nonprofits about activities they are conducting. Often the intent is not clear. Does the organization answer the most important question: “Why?” Why do they conduct this activity? What do they hope to achieve? Do they understand the intended purpose or goal of what they are trying to achieve?

I now have a greater understanding of why the nonprofit world is used to measuring outputs instead of outcomes. Measuring activities is much easier, way easier in fact, and nonprofits have limited time to dedicate to measurement. But with so much attention to reporting of outcomes due to possible sanctions, incentives/pay for performance, etc. measuring activities isn’t going to help nonprofits demonstrate their value and secure more funding.

Think about it: If a funder asks, “You say your program makes a difference in the lives of the people you serve? How so? Can you show me?” Well, can you?

When organizations measure program efforts — number of persons served, teaching, training, meals provided, and so on — they’re measuring activities. Outcomes, on the other hand, are the results of those activities: changed awareness, behavior, condition or status. Saul’s blog post offers some practical examples of outcomes.

So the take-away here is when we start by identifying the outcome, we can consider the most efficient and effective ways to achieve that outcome (either through an activity/strategy or a set of activities/strategies).

In light of today’s budget reductions impacting many nonprofits, it is mission critical for organizations (yes, yours too) to measure and evaluate the outcomes of the programs that the organization administers and believes in. It’s not a bad thing to learn that perhaps your program is not as effective as you believe. That’s what we refer to as “strategic learning.” Understanding the outcomes of your program can help you course correct — or reevaluate the change you made — to see if you can achieve a more positive outcome.

Lastly, if you have good outcome data from your program, share it with the world. Telling your story and sharing your program outcomes will demonstrate to your community, and particularly to your funders/donors, how important your work is. It can also lead you to successfully solicit additional donations and win competitive RFP awards, thus raising more revenue so you can make a greater impact. In closing, I leave you with a famous Warren Buffet quote: “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.

One thought on “Measure Activities or Measure Outcomes? And the Answer is . . .

    Sue Levin said:
    June 3, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    Hi Rick,

    Thank you for this discussion. I run the HGI Counseling Center in Houston and have been running a pilot study using an outcome measurement system (Partners for Change Outcome Measurement system- PCOMs) that has been designated by SAMSHA as an evidence-based practice. It uses two simple tools that measure emotional/psychological wellbeing and the therapeutic alliance *every* session. We’ve been running the pilot since February and are starting to have enough data to look at. So far so good. Clients understand why we are asking and are happy to participate. has all the articles, materials, etc.

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