Despite my many years of stridently stressing the importance of outcomes and assessment for nonprofits, I have grown increasingly worried that the vast majority of outcomes efforts will yield, at best, marginal benefit.

Granted, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and a few others have keenly focused on the challenge of social outcomes and have dealt with them well. Yet many other efforts may end up misdirecting, even wasting, precious time and financial resources. In some extreme situations, well-intentioned efforts may actually risk producing adverse effects on nonprofits and those they serve.

To What End?
The main reason the dialogue on social outcomes is off track is because we have failed to keep our eyes fixed on the ends we are trying to advance. Every ounce of our effort on social outcomes should be with one end in mind: helping nonprofits create greater benefits for the people and causes they serve.

Most outcomes efforts today have drifted far from that end. Too often, measurement has become an end in and of itself.

- If greater benefits were the end, the sector’s dialogue on outcomes would be 95% about mission and 5% about metrics. Today, we have the ratio reversed.

- If greater benefits were the end, nonprofits would be driving the discussion about outcomes—not funders. Attempts to define outcomes seldom produce positive benefits when they are imposed on organizations from the outside.

- If greater benefits were the end, we would be working to help nonprofits clarify the end results they are trying to achieve. Achieving clarity of purpose produces increased benefits even if you never put a single metric in place!

- If greater benefits were the end, we would properly differentiate between operational performance and organizational effectiveness. What good is it to focus on an organization’s overhead costs or fund development levels if we don’t have a clue as to how effective the organization is at creating benefits for those it serves?

- If greater benefits were the end, we would own up to how much encouragement and support nonprofits need in order to define and assess what they do and how well they do it. We’ve approached this challenge as if it’s about numbers when it’s really about changing cultures. Changing culture requires large and persistent investments of time, talent, and money. 

Common Sense Left Behind
A vivid illustration of measurement run amok comes to us courtesy of No Child Left Behind.

Like most people, I believe we need ways to judge our schools and how well our students are doing. But No Child Left Behind does these things poorly. It’s the classic example of metrics over mission.

The current regime of “memorization and testing” and the growing battery of standardized tests risk rewarding targeted test preparation while not informing us or the students themselves whether they are developing the relevant skills and competencies they and our society and economy so sorely need. Yes, it’s very important to achieve—and measure—core competencies like reading and math. But where are the incentives for schools to educate young people to be curious, engaged citizens capable of critical thinking and problem solving? Where are the incentives to encourage collaborative development and learning? Where are the incentives to give students practical experience in the ways of life outside of school?

Too Hard on ‘Soft’ Outcomes
But I should be careful not to cast stones.

In the early years of Venture Philanthropy Partners, we got a lot of resistance to my push for “clearly defined outcomes” from leaders whose organizations placed a premium on being holistic with their services and functioning as “community builders.” Although I agreed with them in concept, I felt that a focus on “community building” was too soft to be a legitimate outcome. Outcomes related to “community building” are, after all, radically ambiguous compared to outcomes like reduction in teenage pregnancy and substance abuse.

I now see better that serving the entire family (holistic services) and building community are some of the very things that create the environment—a web of support and community—that helps youth avoid high-risk behavior, get an education, and prepare for college or a job. But talking about “community building” was too intangible, and not readily measureable to us at the time—and, candidly, difficult to sell to our own stakeholders and the emerging field of nonprofit performance at large.

I regret not being more open in my thinking back then. Instead of pushing back on what we were hearing, we should have done more to understand “soft” achievements that may in fact be every bit as real and important as “harder” outcomes. I aspire to do a better job of making them part and parcel of future efforts to assess outcomes and performance—even if that means using qualitative and/or anecdotal indicators.

The point is this: When public or private funders establish performance metrics and then tie significant rewards or consequences to their achievement, organizations and people will migrate to the behaviors that will allow them to meet their defined targets. If the metrics are appropriate and closely tied to mission, this is a good thing. But if the metrics are overly simplistic and unmoored from mission, then organizations will go racing in the wrong direction. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, they’ll get lost, but they’ll be making good time.

Shining Lights
Some nonprofits have made significant strides in adopting a culture focused on defining and achieving outcomes for the people they serve. One example is the Cleveland Clinic, which I serve as a trustee. The Cleveland Clinic, along with the Mayo Clinic and a few others, lead the field in their use of outcomes to assess their own effectiveness. The Cleveland Clinic now openly presents this information via its website.

Thanks to my good friends at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, in the field of human services I often hold up the work of Youth Villages. Youth Villages, which helps emotionally troubled children through a wide range of residential- and community-based treatment programs in 11 states, rigorously tracks all of the children it serves, during their treatment and often for two years after they discharge. In the words of CEO Pat Lawler, “The state…shouldn’t be buying beds; they should buy outcomes, successful outcomes.”

First Principles
We can help other nonprofit leaders achieve similar success if we refocus on the first-order question, “To what end?” To do that, we need to remember why we’re engaging in a discussion of outcomes in the first place: to help nonprofit leaders to be more effective—that is, to deliver greater benefits to those they serve. Doing so will provide the basis for the accountability we all seek.