Nonprofit Organizations and Outcome Measurement
by Sheila Matano
An article by Lehn Benjamin in the September 2012 issue of the American Journal of Evaluation explored the extent to which existing outcome measurement frameworks are aligned with the actual activities performed by nonprofit staff to ensure positive outcomes for their clients.
Benjamin’s analysis of numerous measurement guides revealed that existing outcome measurement frameworks focus primarily on program activities completed and the changes in the users as a result of those program activities. This highlights, rather overwhelmingly, that outcome measurement often misses important aspects of staff work, namely the direct activities they do with clients. It is this frontline work that is essential for helping staff build relationships in their communities that are paramount to positive program outcomes. Unfortunately in many cases this does not fully capture the work of frontline staff, which in turn increases the likelihood of mischaracterizing nonprofit performance.
Research shows other possible reasons for a disconnect between outcome measurement frameworks and the frontline work of non-profit staff, including:
1) Funding requirements that force nonprofits to collect data that are only necessary for reporting to donors rather than collecting data that will be useful for internal development (Christensen & Ebrahim, 2006, Cutt & Murray, 2000, and Ebrahim, 2005).
2) Performance measurement frameworks that do not take into consideration the role of nonprofits in client engagement, particularly frontline work (Knutsen & Brower, 2010, and Smith, 2010).
3) The fact that outcome measurement as a standardized framework conflicts with the experimental nature of nonprofit work (Hwang & Powell, 2009).
4) The idea that nonprofits may not have the capacity to adequately measure outcomes (Botcheva, White, & Huffman, 2002 and Carman & Fredericks, 2008).
Given the above limitations, what can evaluators do to ensure outcome measurement better captures nonprofit performance? Benjamin’s article offers three main recommendations for evaluators. He suggests that they:
1) Develop guidance tools that help nonprofits measure frontline activities critical to achieving positive program outcomes
2) Create tools that help nonprofits incorporate relationship building activities into their performance measurement systems
3) Further examine how the adoption and assimilation of current outcome measurement frameworks have shaped the work that nonprofits do as well as the consequences of using poor measurement frameworks
In conclusion, Benjamin suggests that in order to fully understand nonprofit performance, evaluators must redefine outcome measurement to include a broader conception of nonprofit work, which will in turn help nonprofits achieve their desired outcomes.
Christensen, R., & Ebrahim, A. (2006). How does accountability affect mission: The case of a nonprofit serving immigrants and refugees. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 17, 195–209.
Cutt, J., & Murray, V. (2000). Accountability and effectiveness evaluation in nonprofit organizations. London, England: Routledge.
Ebrahim, A. (2005). Accountability myopia: Losing sight of organizational learning. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 34, 56–87.
Knutsen, W. L., & Brower, R. S. (2010). Managing expressive and instrumental accountabilities in nonprofit and voluntary organizations: A qualitative investigation. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 39, 588–610.
Smith, S. R. (2010). Nonprofits and public administration: Reconciling performance management and citizen engagement. The American Review of Public Administration, 40(2), 129–152.
Hwang, H., & Powell, W. W. (2009). The rationalization of charity: The influences of professionalism in the nonprofit sector. Administrative Science Quarterly, 54, 268–298.
Botcheva, L., White, C. R., & Huffman, L. C. (2002). Learning culture and outcomes management practices in community agencies. American Journal of Evaluation, 23, 421–434.
Carman, J. G., & Fredericks, K. A. (2008). Nonprofits and evaluation: Empirical evidence from the field. In J. G. Carman & K. A. Fredericks (Eds.), Nonprofits and evaluation. New directions for evaluation (119; pp. 51–72). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.