Do Outcomes Have to Represent Change?

The Challenge of Change

Indicators Guide MeasurementThrough my consulting and training work, I hear nonprofits share a common challenge: “We know our program’s purpose and value, but funders want more. It’s not enough.” Programs that are in the business of treatment or behavior change – counseling, therapy, skill-building, training, education – don’t face this particular struggle. Their desired result is change. Funders want that, and funders understand that. Programs may struggle to measure it, but they rarely struggle to articulate the value of what they do and the contributions they make.

However, there are a whole host of programs that aren’t in the business of change, per se, but are still providing valuable services that are essential to a larger change process. They are one link, often at the beginning, of a chain. In my experience, these are programs that are in the business of providing:

  • needed resources (food, clothes, hygiene items, books)
  • access (vouchers, transportation), or
  • enrichment opportunities (camps, recreation, socialization)

In attempts to meet funder expectations, nonprofits can bend themselves into pretzels, writing unrealistic outcome statements. If your program provides books, can you really claim that you’ve increased family literacy? Does giving a child a coat directly improve their academic performance? If you give kids access to camp, is it fair to say that you’ve improved their social skills? Maybe. Maybe not.

Purpose Can Be Enough

When I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve encouraged funders to acknowledge the unique and valuable purpose each program is designed to fulfill and let that be enough. They can decide whether they want to invest in it, but they shouldn’t ask you to make it sound like something it’s not.

Programs that provide resources, access, and enrichment serve valuable purposes in larger change processes. They:

  • remove barriers
  • increase participation
  • improve quality of life
  • offer experiences we collectively value
  • meet basic needs

When nonprofits feel pressured to overstate their impact or contributions in order to state all their outcomes in the terms of behavior change, they create confusing and burdensome measurement tools and strategies and lose sight of their true purpose. Instead, I hope organizations feel confident enough in their contributions to be honest. And I hope funders give themselves the freedom to acknowledge different types of value and contribution. In a post last summer, I shared ways programs like these can use a Theory of Change to make their case. If this sounds like your struggle, check out that post!

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