Using Outcome Measures

While some sectors of the not-for-profit world have been using outcome measures for many years, others providers are still doubtful about the benefits and costs of using them. What are outcome measures? Outcome measures are simply standards that a program's staff sets to determine whether the program is accomplishing what it exists to accomplish.

So what is an outcome? It's a benefit or change for participating individuals or populations during or after the program's activities. For a foster care program, an outcome might be reducing length of stay in placement. For an HIV prevention program, it might be reducing the number of new infections. (Note: While these are simple statements, developing and calculating the outcomes should be a considered process. That will be the subject of a later post.)

The advantages of using carefully thought through outcome measures are many. For example, you can use them with outsiders in some of the follow ways.
  • Once you have outcome measures, you can state clearly what you have accomplished. For example, Twin Cities RISE, a program designed to provide employers with skilled workers - mostly men from communities of color -  states on its website that people who complete its programs increase their annual income by over 355%, and 70% remain employed in the second year after placement.
  • Using outcome measures lets all stakeholders know what your expectations for service providers are. For example, in New York City the Administration for Children's Services Scorecard sets out a detailed process of review, rating and rebuttal for providers of foster care and preventive services. You can download a copy of the Scorecard methodology here.
  • More and more, funders like government and foundations are requiring outcome measures,  are basing funding decisions on prior outcomes, or letting performance-based contracts. In addition, accrediting agencies often require outcome measures. Having a system in place means access to more funding opportunities.
Sometimes directors or managers believe that they don't have time, or staff, or money to develop or use outcome measures, or that their clients or services are too specialized to make generalizations possible. They're wrong. There are also many internal reasons to develop and use outcome measures:
  • Your staff can see whether their efforts really make a difference in people's lives. 
  • If not, then staff are in a position to suggest changes or improvements to programs.
  • You can target effective services for expansion or replication.
  • You can compare program performance from year to year.
This post is part of a series about developing and using high quality management indicators.You can see related posts here and here.

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