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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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Letís Take a Step Back in the Outcomes Debate
Nell Edgington

March, 2010

There is a growing discussion among social impact organizations and those who fund them about how to measure impact.  It is indeed a very slippery endeavor.

Mario Marino, Chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners (a venture philanthropy fund in Washington D.C. that makes growth capital investments in nonprofits) has been encouraging nonprofits to measure outcomes for years.  Indeed one of the fundamental characteristics of venture philanthropy is a reliance on metrics and outcomes for investment to happen.  He recently wrote a post arguing that he is “increasingly worried that the vast majority of funders and nonprofits are achieving, at best, marginal benefit from their efforts to implement outcomes thinking.”  He argues that in an zealous pursuit of metrics we have left common sense and “softer” impact behind and encouraged nonprofits to move away from the impact they were working towards.

To add further confusion to the outcome measurement discussion, the Gates Foundation’s Melinda Tuan studied 8 approaches to measuring cost vs. social impact, or the value that nonprofit organizations create versus the cost of their activities.  The results of the study were disheartening; none of the approaches they studied was a magic bullet, all had significant drawbacks, which led them to conclude: “Integrated cost approaches to measuring and/or estimating social value are still in the nascent stages of development due to the lack of maturity in the field of social program evaluation.”

And there are other camps working towards outcome measurement, like those debating about whether randomized control trials (a research methodology where a random group of program participants is tracked and compared to a random group of cohorts who did not participate in the program) are feasible for nonprofits. And on the social business side, the GIIN (Global Impact Investing Network) is developing standards for measuring and communicating the social impact of investments known as The Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS).  And that’s just a start.

This whole social impact measurement endeavor is incredibly important because if we can figure out a way to measure which social change efforts work, and which don’t, we can allocate resources accordingly and, in theory, get closer to solutions to social problems.

But I think we need to first take a step back.  As is so often the case in efforts to build nonprofit capacity, effectiveness and infrastructure (including, in this case, the ability of nonprofits to evaluate their work) the focus is on the largest, most resourced nonprofit organizations.  Let’s remember that more than 80% of nonprofit organizations have budgets under $1 million (see the Nonprofit Almanac).  Budgets that small leave very little room for funds to support randomized control trials or other kinds of outcome measurements.

But an even bigger roadblock is the fact that many nonprofit organizations have not articulated their theory of change, or their logic model.  Many nonprofit organizations are doing good work, but they don’t necessarily have an articulated strategy around that good work.  A logic model helps an organization understand and articulate how they believe that they translate resources (inputs) into social impact, or change in a community.  This understanding allows the organization to better articulate (to potential funders, volunteers, supporters, partners), and create strategy around, their work.  A potential logic model for an English as a Second Language after-school program could be as follows:

One of the first steps Social Velocity undertakes with clients who want to increase organization capacity, sustainability, revenue, growth, or really any kind of progress, is to create a logic model with the organization.  The majority of nonprofits that I encounter don’t have an articulated logic model or theory of change.  It may seem like an academic exercise, but I would argue that it is absolutely critical to just about anything a nonprofit does.  In order to understand their place in the community, the value that their work adds, how additional inputs (like funding) can increase impact, and their strategy for delivering services, they need to articulate this process.

But the larger debate about outcome measurement ignores the fact that the majority of nonprofit organizations have not completed step 1 in outcome measurement: articulating a strategy for using resources to create outcomes.  Once this is articulated, we can talk about how to measure whether that strategy is actually coming to fruition.

Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity ( a social innovation company that helps nonprofits use new tools to expand their impact and find new resources. As part of this, Social Velocity connects Texas and the Southwest region to the national movement for social innovation (social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, social investing). The goal is to move the social sector to the next level where we are addressing root causes of social problems while creating sustainable nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at or via the Social Velocity blog at


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