Back in January, I wrote about my deep, nagging fear that many efforts to assess outcomes are woefully off track.

Not everyone agreed with my analysis. In fact, I got hard pushback on some points, and a few commentators wondered why it had taken me so long to own up to my own limitations in my approach over the years to the topic of outcomes.

The majority, however, agreed with the thesis that we’ve lost sight of the ends we’re trying to advance. In the wise words of David Hunter, Managing Partner of Hunter Consulting and former Director of Assessment for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation: “It seems to me that the mess you describe indeed is enormous and very destructive—because few people involved in this work have thought deeply about managing towards outcomes and [they] have put the horse before the cart—focusing…on HOW to measure rather than on WHY measure…and WHAT to measure.”

Sins of Commission, Sins of Omission
The feedback confirmed for me that nonprofit executives, staff, and boards; donors; and assessment experts are deeply frustrated with our sector’s work around outcomes.

We must be intentional about surfacing these roiling frustrations that are rarely getting voiced. If we don’t, we’re going to continue to perpetrate sins of commission and omission that prevent us from making even the slightest dent in the failing status quo that defines education, healthcare, and social services in America.

The most common sin of commission is when we funders, in the name of “measurement” and “accountability,” foist unfunded, often overly simplistic, self-serving mandates on our grantees—rather than genuinely helping them define, create, and use the information they need to be disciplined managers.

The sin of omission I often see is when funders and nonprofits run away from outcomes and their measurement altogether—that is, nothing assesses whether nonprofits are delivering on their promises to the families who turn to them for services.

It’s About Management, Not Metrics
It is clear to me that our sector needs a major reset on the approach to outcomes—from how we think about them to how we assess them. More than anything else, our sector needs a singular focus on managing to outcomes. Here’s precisely what I mean:

  • Nonprofits need to gain clarity, through thoughtful introspection, on what change they are trying to create;
  • They need to gain specificity on how they will accomplish that change;
  • They need to identify what information (hard and soft) will be most helpful for determining if they are on course to achieve that change; 
  • They need to collect and use this information as a basis for being disciplined within mission—that is, to plan, make important decisions, track, course correct, and improve;
  • They need to combine all of the above with good judgment and keen discernment, which are more important than any metric.

What Managing to Outcomes Looks Like
Geoff Canada, founder and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone and one of my heroes, raised a stir with some provocative comments that were published in the New York publication City Limits

When Canada was asked to define success for HCZ, he said, “The only benchmark of success is college graduation. That’s the only one: How many kids you got in college, how many kids you got out.”

Canada could not have been clearer on the ultimate outcomes HCZ is focused on achieving. It’s not improving reading levels. It’s not getting kids to graduate high school. It’s not helping kids get into college. To HCZ, these are important interim indicators to ensure they are moving in the right direction, but, ultimately, it’s ensuring those young people make it through college that matters.

With that great clarity as a starting point, Canada and his team, with the help of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Bridgespan, and others, have gotten good at identifying the information they need to collect in order to manage to these outcomes. Are all the kids in the HCZ graduating from college? Of course not. But HCZ is on a very promising path. 

A Challenge to Us All
If you’re not focused on outcomes (or doing very little), then please recognize that you—the executives, staff, board, and funders—have an affirmative obligation to engage. It’s mission-critical to know whether you’re on track to deliver what you promise to those you serve. I have great respect for leaders’ intuition, but intuition alone is almost never enough.

If your nonprofit has defined your intended outcomes and maybe even progressed to reporting on them, then please stop, step back, and rigorously question what you’ve done (or plan to do). Remember the critical, first-order question, “To what end?” Think about Geoff Canada. Are you on a path to gain the clarity he has achieved (after many years of struggle!) on the ends he’s trying to advance for the children and young people he serves?

I encourage nonprofits to undertake facilitated discussions, perhaps inviting informed voices to brief their boards and staff. For example, I’ve been fortunate to be deeply engaged with The Lawrence School in Northeast Ohio, which serves grades 1-12 students with learning differences and attention-deficit disorders. We have benefited greatly by having a facilitator—a seasoned, skilled professional who understands management and organizations well—lead working groups of board and staff to sort out and define fundamental aspects of what the school does and represents. The facilitator has helped us conduct concerted and lengthy efforts to gain greater clarity of mission and vision and define the school’s guiding principles and underlying values.  Similarly, discussions are well along to clarify and explain more clearly whom the school serves and to define, with specificity, its educational model and how it differentiates itself from other educational approaches. The gains have been nothing short of transformational.

None of this suggests in any way that summative and formative evaluation are not important, particularly for building information about what works and what doesn’t for the field or a discipline. But if we really want to help organizations deliver quality services most effectively, then our priority must be on identifying the nonprofits with the willingness, propensity, and capacity to manage to outcomes—and then helping them do just that, with strong encouragement, significant funding, and relevant expertise.