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Want Results? Funders Should Pay to Ask the Right Questions

August 07, 2013

(Laura Cronin is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she spoke with Sharna Goldseker, managing director at consulting firm 21/64, about the priorities of millennial donors and what makes them different from their parents and grandparents.)

Performance_measurementGrantmakers have always been able to manage their inputs. Each year private foundations provide a list of their grants to eligible 501(c)(3) organization via the Form 990-PF. Foundation boards, fundraisers, and anyone with access to the Foundation Center's site or a GuideStar account can quickly access this baseline data.

But just as the charges on your monthly credit card statement are only one indicator of your personal financial health, foundations don't learn a whole lot about their overall effectiveness by only tracking the size of their grants budget. After years of debate about the need for better evaluation -- on both the funder and grantee sides -- measuring outcomes and gauging the results of foundation grantmaking is still a work in progress, especially for small and midsize foundations and their nonprofit partners.

While reporting to funders has always been a requirement for smaller nonprofits, the data collection and evaluation they tend to do for funders is not always integrated into other organizational planning efforts. Indeed, most small to midsize nonprofits cannot afford to hire a full-time evaluation officer, and in a time of constrained budgets, few executive directors are willing to prioritize data collection over service delivery. And even when organizations are willing to devote resources to performance measurement, there often is a disconnect between the questions frontline managers are interested in asking and the kind of data foundation program officers and executives are looking for to prove the effectiveness of a given program to their boards.

Laurel Molloy of Innovations Quantified has been counseling small and midsize groups and their funding partners for more than a decade. Often, her advice is paid for out of an organization's own pockets, but forward-thinking funders like the Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation have come to realize that in order to better understand the impact of their grantmaking and support the work of their grantees, they need to fund evaluation infrastructure in every grant. By doing so, Langeloth is taking a big step in ensuring that what its grantees measure is both relevant for the organization and useful to its own program staff. To help funders and grantees get a better handle on outcomes and outcomes measurement that is both meaningful and manageable, Molloy offers the following advice:

Step 1: Engage key staff in the discussion. Many outcome measurement efforts fail because they are developed in silos and don't include those ultimately responsible for the process. To ensure that your staff is on board with the plan and prepared to support it, it's a good idea to engage every stakeholder in the conversation as early in the process as possible.

Step 2: Develop a sound program plan using a logic model. As the name suggests, a good logic model captures the "If-Then" logic on which many a successful effort is based (e.g., if we provide the following services, then those receiving the services will change their behavior in such-and-such a way). Increasingly, nonprofits are finding, even before they begin measuring, that logic models can help to establish a solid connection between the actions they take as service providers and the changes they desire in a particular target population.

Step 3: Frame your outcomes as "Who-How" statements. Once you have a clear vision of how your actions are connected to your desired outcomes, make sure your outcome statements are written in “Who-How” format. The "who" should be the target of your intervention (i.e., persons receiving direct services and/or those likely to benefit if those receiving direct services change their behavior), while the "how" should be the desired changes themselves.

Step 4: Choose what you're going to track wisely. We're all familiar with the old KISS principle. Well, in the case of outcomes measurement, you want to "Keep it simple, strategically." Don't assume you have to measure every possible outcome. Instead, identify your top two or three priority outcomes and track those. You can always add others later as you gain more experience with outcomes measurement.

Step 5: Keep your data collection simple. When deciding how you're going to measure your outcomes, KISS is again your best bet. Look first at what you're already collecting. Incorporating data collection into existing operations is always easier and more likely to be maintained if you're already collecting that data. And always consider factors like the time, cost, and expertise it takes to develop data-collection tools and processes. Often, the more effort required to collect and analyze data, the less likely it is to get done (or, get done properly).

Step 6: Plan to use your findings. "Begin with the end in mind" is one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It's also critical to success in outcome measurement. Before you begin measuring outcomes, envision yourself reviewing the findings. What are you most interested in learning about? What are your stakeholders most likely to be interested in? Let such questions guide your process -- and keep you from tracking unnecessary things.

By supporting an organization's evaluation efforts early on, funders can help set them up to be better partners and, ultimately, be more successful in measuring their own results. And by keeping an evaluation plan manageable and focused on what matters most, even small organizations can become masters of the outcome measurement process. The key is to embrace the process and be strategic every step of the way.

-- Laura Cronin

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