Service Sunday Reflections – Did I Make an Impact?

Impact Measurement & Reporting Cartoon

You don’t need to be a psychologist to make an educated guess about whether a volunteer wants to know their work made an impact.  Of course they do…well, at least 80% of them do according to Volunteer Canada’s 2013 Volunteer Recognition Study.

Likewise, funders and other financial supporters want to know how much impact their investment in your organization’s charitable programs has had.

According to Richard Larkin, in his July 2, 2013 article in Nonprofit Quarterly, the “success metric conundrum” is the use and confusion between “Inputs”, “Outputs” and “Outcomes”.

“Inputs describe how much in the way of resources (both financial and non-financial) such as volunteer time, materials, equipment, etc. was used to conduct an activity (program).”

“Outputs measure the activities (programs) conducted by the organization, such as number of classes held, the number of students enrolled or graduated…and the like. The problem with this type of data is that, while it shows the quantity of program services provided, it does not indicate whether any real benefits resulted.  Did the students learn anything?”

“Outcomes measure how much better off the organization’s clients, or society as a whole, are as a result of the organization’s activities. For example, by how much has the teenage pregnancy rate in a community been reduced through the efforts of a charity whose mission includes educating children about the undesirable results of getting pregnant so young?”

“…true success is measured only by outcomes, and these data are never found in financial statements, if they can be obtained at all.”

Another issue related to the measurement of outcomes is the difference between short-term, medium-term and long-term results.  Many volunteers and funders seek instant validation of the impact of their contributions.  In many situations, the effect of an organization’s programs may not be visible or measurable for quite some time. For example, a volunteer center speaking to children at their elementary school about volunteerism may not affect the level of volunteerism in the community until the child is older or becomes an adult and can then actively engage in community-based volunteer opportunities.

According to a 2007 paper entitled “Demystifying Outcome Measurement in Community Development” by Radu Madan, “Outcome- or results-oriented evaluation grew in popularity across many fields during the 1990s. Many private funders of community development also began asking for outcome information earlier. But since 2005, some funders in community development have actually begun requiring it…Technically, impacts are just changes in organizations, communities or systems expected to occur if benefits to participants are achieved. In practice, the terms outcome and impact are often used interchangeably. In contemporary outcome measurement theory, however, “impact” nearly always refers to medium- to long-term or community-level change, while the term “outcome” refers to the broad spectrum of benefits over various time periods and levels.”

Given the interest in and need for instant gratification among volunteers and financial supporters, it makes sense to collect, measure and communicate not only the traditional information on outputs, but also outcomes.  Measurement of “impact”, however, should not be forgotten, as long-term change at the community-level should always be our true goal and measure of success!

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