Making sense of outcomes in the nonprofit sector

publication date: May 4, 2011
author/source: Lisa MacDonald

One of the most talked about subjects in the nonprofit sector is the question of effectiveness, performance measurement and results - collectively referred to as "outcomes".  The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox by Robert Penna is an in-depth practical resource for tackling the challenge of outcomes for your organization.

The book is divided into four sections:  The Basics, Working with Outcomes, Advanced Tools and Other Tools and Perspectives.  In chapters 1-4, The Basics includes putting outcomes into an overall managerial context, the vocabulary of outcomes, the characteristics of good outcomes and identifying outcomes for your program. Here, we will briefly consider the vocabulary of outcomes as a learning starting point.

Understanding the language of outcomes

Like any discipline or movement, in recent years, "outcomes" has adopted terminology that has become the accepted vernacular for the subject.

Inputs: the resources that a program of an organization commits to an effort.

Program: the program is made up of the products and services an organization applies to a situation.

Output: what your program or organization produces; it is your product.

Outcome: the direct, intended beneficial effect on the stakeholders or interests your organization and programs exist to serve.

Impact: this is how you describe the long-term or indirect effects of the outcomes on those stakeholders you seek to serve.

Penna further illustrates the relationship between inputs, programs and outcomes with the analogy of standing at the edge of a lake and throwing a rock into the water.  The inputs are you, the rock and the strength of your arm.  The program is your act of throwing the rock.  The output is the splash the rock makes as it hits the water.  An indirect impact may be that a leaf is pushed to shore by the ripple in the water, but it is not predictable and would be dependent upon a number of variables. 

What you see and hear depends on where you're standing

As the author points out, an Outcomes Approach recognizes three fundamental shifts in thinking in the way things in the nonprofit sector have been traditionally viewed:

1. A shift from the perspective of a funder to that of an investor

2. A shift in accent from activity to results

3. A shift from thinking about investing in the provision of service to thinking about investing in change.

Once this fundamental change has been adopted - it's not simply swapping out one set of jargon for another - we, as nonprofit professionals, will be set to tackle the world of outcomes.

You can order your copy of The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox, for only $84.00 by clicking here:


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