FAQs About Outcomes

1. I’ve heard of something called an “outcomes approach.” What is that approach, and is it different from other ways of thinking about challenges and solutions?

An “outcomes approach” is basically a particular way of looking at what we need to do and how we intend to do it.  The outcomes approach, to quote Stephen Covey, “begins with the end in mind.”  More to the point, it keeps that end in mind through all the steps of program design and implementation.  It differs from other approaches in that it focuses much less on the enormity of the problem at hand (or assigning blame for that problem), or upon activity (how busy we are), process (are we crossing all the “t’s” and dotting all the “i’s”?), or upon grand visions, and focuses on specific goals to be reached within a specific time. (pp. 7-15 of The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox)

2. What the heck is an “outcome” anyway?

An outcome is essentially a target, something an organization commits to achieving through its efforts and/or interventions.  An outcome is not about activity,  as in How many we served, but rather is about the changes in an existing situation that were brought about because of the activity of an organization. (pp. 18-20 of the NPOT)

3. Aren’t outcomes just something to report to a funder?

No.  Outcomes are really what an organization should be about.  Many organizations, when describing themselves, begin with the notion of a verb…”we serve,” or “we provide….”  Actually, they should be describing themselves in terms of the changes they bring about.  It is often helpful to begin by abandoning the idea of a “funder” (or donor) in the first place, and to start thinking of the sources of an organization’s resources as investors, those to whom a return on that investment is due.  Outcomes are another name for those returns. (pp. 28-33 of the NPOT)

Beyond this, a good outcomes tracking system can be a powerful tool for program improvement, especially if used with a Lessons Learned system, because it helps an organization see where performance might not have matched projections.  Rather than simply having a disappointing result, the utilization of these ideas helps an organization identify where and how an effort might need to be strengthened next time. (Chapter 8 of the NPOT)

4. What kind of changes are we talking about here?

Generally speaking, the changes an organization should be looking for are in the Behavior, Attitudes, Condition, Knowledge, or Status of those or those interests they exist to serve. Together these are known as the BACKS Measures. (pp. 21-26 of the NPOT)

5. What does a good outcome look like?

Good outcomes have several characteristics in common.  Among these are that they are meaningful, sustainable, bound in time and narrowly focused.  They are not, as Peter Drucker has written, a “hero sandwich of good intentions.” (Chapter 3 of the NPOT)

6. When is the best time to apply the idea of outcomes to something we are planning in our organization?

The best time to begin to think about outcomes is when you are first planning a program, initiative, or intervention.  While outcome-based tools can be applied later in the life of a program, it is always best to start thinking about your outcomes –and how you will achieve them- when you are first considering and designing an effort. (Chapter 5 of the NPOT)

7. I have heard about the need to assess our program’s capacity.  Isn’t that just another way of talking about money?

No.  “Capacity” is a 3-level consideration that can profoundly impact an organization’s ability to achieve its goals.  It has to do with the strength and quality-of-management of an organization, the basics of program delivery, and the actual implementation considerations –the thousand small things that crop up and need to be addressed- as any effort is rolled out and gotten under way.  Overlooks any of these three levels can hamper, if not cripple, an initiative. (Chapter 6 of the NPOT)

8. What is “outcome-based communications”?

Just as an outcomes approach to program development and implementation calls for us to think about where we want to end up before we start our efforts, outcome-based communications is a thorough, thoughtful approach to outreach and communications that asks What do we want out of this effort? and then specifically designs the effort to achieve those aims. (Chapter 9 of the NPOT)

9. Aren’t outcomes something that are best applied to our programs?

No.  The underlying idea of outcomes can be applied to any variety of organizational needs, from hiring and decision-making, to budgeting and process analysis.  It all rests upon the notion of “beginning with the end in mind” and using the right tools for your specific organizational need.

10. I have read a lot about how some large companies have used things like Six Sigma to improve performance.  Is this something that my organization should consider?

Six Sigma is unquestionably one of the most impressive management tools yet devised.  But it can often be a lot for a small-to-mid-sized organization to take on, especially given the manpower that a strict Six Sigma system often entails.  However, there are powerful tools and insights of Six Sigma from which any organization can benefit, and which virtually any organization can implement.  Neither size nor resources stand in the way of most organizations using these ideas once they known and understand them…and most are amazingly simple. (Chapter 11 of the NPOT)