What Are Your Organization’s True Outcomes?

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Photo by Nick Page.

When was the first time you heard the word outcome? You may have first heard it from a grantmaker asking about your organization’s outcomes and impacts. Did you groan internally, wondering if they know how hard you work each day? 

Grantmakers see plenty of weak proposals that tend to focus on tactics: “first WE will do this, then WE will do that.” This leaves the impression that your focus is internal rather than external. A strong proposal emphasizes the beneficiaries and the meaningful external change you hope to achieve.

For the sake of argument, which of these is an outcome?

  1. We will teach stress management skills to 15 at-risk youth this quarter.
  2. Alumni of our programming will use and model the stress management skills learned in our course to navigate the stressful situations and trauma in their lives, as evidenced by survey results and focus group interviews.

Or how about this:

  1. We will publish 3 studies on affordable housing this year.
  2. By 2026, at least two city administrations considering affordable housing initiatives will cite or rely on our research to make their decisions.

If you recognized the second option of each grouping as an outcome, good work! Notice the difference? Which is more compelling? Which organization would you be more likely to donate to or support? 

The first option in each grouping is a description of an organization’s output. Outputs are activities necessary to achieve an outcome, whereas an outcome is a meaningful external change in the world you want to achieve.

It is tempting to spend a lot of time and attention on outputs. But as Steven Covey puts it, “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” Think of the rungs of the ladder as outputs and the wall as the outcome. 

Outcomes are highly unique and specific to each nonprofit. They might be a change in conditions, attitudes, or behavior; or they might be evidence of learning, a measurable change in people’s lives, or a policy change. Defining outcomes helps break up a distant vision into achievable chunks.

What is the audacious, exciting change in the world that your nonprofit aims to achieve?