Making Measures Work for You: Outcomes and Evaluation

An outcomes-based approach to evaluation works, proponents say, because it uses straightforward metrics to assess actual impact. How else to know if the work you're supporting is leading to the desired changes? Other grantmakers counter that outcomes measurement should be approached with care. Hasty assumptions or over-confidence in the idea that program impacts can be translated into hard data can skew not only the evaluation but the work itself. This guide looks at tensions that drive the debate about outcomes measurement, as well as common questions about its potential risks and rewards. 

Highlights

  • What are "outcomes"?
  • Measuring intangibles
  • Seven tensions in the debate over measuring outcomes 

This guide is part of a series on evaluation techniques, check out related content below for additional resources in this series. 

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    Outcomes Do’s and Don’ts

    Do ...

    • Strive for a culture of intentional learning, foster a dialogue assisted by the data
    • Maintain flexibility for adaptation in a process of continuous feedback
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    Measurement Tension: Is it Possible to Impact Meaningfully, Given the Realities of Time and Control?

    Is it possible to measure impact meaningfully, given the realities of time and control?

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    Common Questions about Outcomes Measurement

    Can you always know upfront what specific outcomes you should be aiming for?

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    Mini Case Study: Using Outcomes Evaluation to Improve Learning

    When her program officer raised the propsect of doing a formal evaluation of her charter school, the executive director rolled her eyes. Everybody wanted to evaluate her students, and she was tired of it. The curriculum was based on developmental principles and built around authentic experience: students created projects and took them to completion in performance — by making a presentation to the city council, for example, or by convincing the mayor to accept their researched recommendation. With the help of a post-doctoral student, the school had earlier articulated a clear theory of their “action learning” approach.

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    Concrete Example - Outputs and Outcomes: Youth Smoking

    A youth program seeks to reduce teenage smoking locally. The program has engaged a top-notch ad agency that is designing clever public service announcements, and the local television station is running the ads, all pro bono. The organization has developed a superb curriculum, using a highly regarded student peer counseling approach, and the high school has adopted it. The program is reaching its target population (outputs), but is the incidence of teenage smoking going down? (outcomes)

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    Additional Resources: Outcome and Evaluation

    Articles and Chapters

    • John Sawhill and David Williamson. “Measuring What Matters in Nonprofits.” McKinsey Quarterly 2001 (no. 2).
    • Melinda Tuan. “Cultivating a Culture of Measurement,” chapter 5 in Funding Effectiveness. Jossey-Bass, in association with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, 2004.
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    Outcomes: Simple Definition

    Outcomes are the observable results of programs that are created and funded in hopes of making a difference in the world... The steps you follow to make change — your outputs — are important, but the results of the process — the outcomes — are what matter in the end. The point is to put a spotlight on what a program is actually accomplishing — what difference it’s making — rather than simply looking at the interventions themselves. But how do we actually measure those outcomes? And, in a complex world, how do we confidently draw connections between the inputs our programs have contributed and the outcomes we ultimately observe?

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