Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Outcome Measurement - How to Do it, and Why

In the past dozen years, the term outcome measurement has become a part of the language of funding. For some reason, nonprofits, particularly local or smaller nonprofits, are having a hard time understanding the difference between documenting outcomes and providing attendance figures. As a grant professional, I see literally dozens of programs that simply don't provide the type of program reporting that grantors expect. I can write the most carefully crafted application in the world, but if your programs don't demonstrate real effectiveness, you are probably not going to be funded.

Outcomes are not measured by how many people you present your program to, they are measured by whether each person improved in some area because they received your services, i.e. the impact of the program. To a large extent, the quality of your outcomes is determined by how carefully you design  your program.

To measure outcomes, you have to have a coherent, measurable goal for your program. For instance, let's say that your nonprofit focuses on improving early childhood learning by getting parents involved. To set up an effective reporting metric, you define the desired end result, and work backwards to define the steps necessary to achieve that goal. For example, if the goal is to teach conversational English, you define what will prove the student learned the language, and what level of proficiency they have attained. Then you develop program steps that produce the desired result.

So, let's apply that to a hypothetical early childhood learning skills program. First you need to define and prove the current state of early childhood learning in your geographic area. Why is your program necessary?  If you don't know what the current state of the problem is, you don't have a baseline from which to measure improvement.

What is the magnitude of the problem? You might use available data, such as government surveys, or maybe you hold a series of meetings with educators, law enforcement, social services workers and other professionals who deal with the effects of poor learning environments. What is the average age of the parents in your target population? What socio-economic conditions seem to produce poor early childhood learning difficulties? What do children entering the school system for the first time lack to make them successful?
Don't be lazy here. It isn't enough to say "Everybody knows that poverty causes poor school outcomes." Put a number to it. Say, "Our local research shows that 72% of the children entering first grade in our school system do not know their alphabet, can't count to 100 and don't focus well on tasks. The average age of their parents is 22. 78% of the affected children live in single parent households. 34% of the parents do not have a high school education. 94% of the households receive some type of public assistance." That type of targeted data will require research and documentation of the current problem.
What is the goal of the program? Don't say, "we will present our programs to 100 family units annually" That sets your program up to accept attendance as a goal. Say, "We will involve 100 parents of five-year-old children in a comprehensive six-month  program that teaches parents how to teach learning skills to their child. We will assess the current skill levels of each child in the areas of reasoning, self-control,  and problem solving, and measure the improvement in each program area. Our goal is to have every child improve their basic ability to learn. We will follow the children through their first year in school to assess whether the program provided the children with better learning skills and collect data to assess whether parents continue their involvement in the learning process".  Now you have the basis for real measurement of real outcomes
To set up measurable goals, you might have program elements that look something like this:
1. Parent will spend at least one half-hour hour daily supervising activities that require concentration. (Have the parent keep a log of the time with a description of the activity)

2. Parent will read with their child at least two hours weekly, or if the parent is not reading-proficient, will take their child to the library reading program and stay with them while they participate in the activities. (Have the parent record the times and places where reading is emphasized)

3. Parent will learn techniques to improve the child's ability to sit still and concentrate on a simple task, such as learning to color neatly or count objects. (Measure the length of time the child concentrates now, and evaluate through testing whether those times have improved. Have the parent document the application of the techniques.)

You get the idea. By defining specific "lessons" for the parent, the by-product, i.e. the child's improvement can be measured. By requiring the parent to prove they are actively involved, you minimize the chance that they will just go through the motions, since the child's improvement is a direct result of the parent's involvement.

Each of the theoretical situations above will also require you to develop and document methods to present the initial concepts you are trying to measure. That documentation will provide data that justifies the grantors contribution to your nonprofit. As a by-product, you will find that your costs may actually decrease, since you won't be wasting time and money on unproductive methods.

That's the type of hard data that grantors are looking for you to provide. If your current program doesn't capture this type of data, spending a few hours with your program team and setting up a measurement strategy and implementation schedule will vastly improve your funding success.

If you need help, or would like to have your program grant language reviewed, drop me an email at  granthelp@ida.net. If you have comments or opinions  please enter them in the comment section. 

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