Child & Family Service's "Leap" Toward Outcome-Based Assessment

Nonprofits are often looking for resources to start them on the road toward impact measurement. Moving beyond outputs (the count data, or answers to the "how much" question) to outcomes (the impact data, or answers to the "what meaningful changes did you effect" question) can be overwhelming, especially for smaller organizations. One of my go-to resources for nonprofits seeking guidance on performance assessment is the monograph Leap of Reason, which I describe below. And although I originally published this post in March 2012, it certainly bears revisiting--not only because outcomes-based assessment continues to be a "hot" topic in the nonprofit sector, but also because our understanding of what it takes to be an impactful organization continues to develop.

While talking about measuring outcomes is all well and fine in theory, it's helpful to know what it looks like in practice. Here in Hawaii, I sometimes hear from local nonprofits that few examples exist of organizations that really "get" performance assessment. That's why I'm happy to shine a spotlight on Child & Family Service (CFS), a well-known and respected local social service organization that can serve as a model for others. What is more, CFS has been open about its journey and continuing evolution in fully embracing an outcomes-based culture. I'll be sharing more about CFS' journey in my next post--stay tuned!

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Have you ever read a book that so clearly, concisely, and compellingly distilled an issue, you just felt the need to share it? Recently, I encountered such a book on outcomes-based management for the nonprofit sector, titled “Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity.” A monograph by Mario Morino, Chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, Leap of Reason is a call to nonprofits to move toward the rigorous identification and measurement of outcomes to drive the impact of their work. Morino makes the case that in the current climate of tightened budgets and reduced funding from government and philanthropic sources, a paradigm shift toward meaningful, measurable impact is both necessary and desirable throughout the social sector.

I had the pleasure of being introduced to Leap of Reason by Howard Garval, President and CEO of Child and Family Service (CFS). Garval is a veteran nonprofit manager, having served for more than a decade as COO and CEO of The Village for Families and Children in Hartford, Connecticut, before his current tenure at CFS. During his time as an executive at The Village, Garval became familiar with Result-Based Accountability, a framework for producing measurable improvements in the public sector developed by Mark Friedman, Director of the Fiscal Policy Studies Institute. Impact assessment, then, is not a new concept for Garval; he has long embraced the idea of measurable outcomes at the organizations of which he’s been a part. As a result, “Leap of Reason really hit home,” Garval said. Last week, Garval and I had an opportunity to talk about the book, its resonance with his own experience in social services, and the ways in which outcomes-based management is helping shape the management and future direction of CFS.

Garval shared a few key take-aways:

1.    When we talk about outcomes, we are ultimately—and most importantly—talking about creating impact for those we serve. Garval pointed out that for him, the goal of improving CFS, its programs, and its operations is an intermediary step. His ultimate goal in utilizing outcomes-based management is to provide “evidence that we produce measurable benefit, and are truly making a difference [to those we serve].” Likewise, Morino states in Leap of Reason: “The greatest dividends [of managing to outcomes]…accrue to the communities, the families, and the individuals with whom we work. They benefit from stronger schools, smarter clinics, and safer communities—all because of nonprofits’ commitment to becoming better.”

2.     While it’s important for nonprofit leaders to “buy-in” to a performance culture, a top-down approach alone won’t ensure meaningful changes within an organization. Garval noted that in his experience, having direct line staff that subscribe to a culture of measurable impact is just as important as having leadership that does the same. Sometimes, he said, “line staff have the best ideas for producing [measurable] benefits,” precisely because of their direct contact with the individuals and families served. Garval further stated that identifying staff who are “early adopters” of an outcomes approach is helpful in engaging staff overall, since peer-to-peer engagement may be a stronger influence than that exerted by an organization’s leaders. Morino makes this same point as well: “Leaders can’t simply create by edict the organizational cultures they desire.”

3.    Identifying the right questions to ask is challenging, but critical to an organization’s work. Garval described taking part in a recent CFS leadership training in which the group reviewed the organization’s outcomes for five core service areas. Looking critically at the outcomes was “the best part of the training,” said Garval. “We drilled down deeper into our measures to [examine if] we are measuring the right stuff.” The exercise, however, sometimes led to more questions than answers: Are we measuring what’s most important? How are we using the information we collect to continually improve our services? Are we collecting outcome data that will ultimately strengthen programs and, consequently, be most beneficial to those we serve? In Leap of Reason, Morino states the challenge this way: “…With all the rhetoric around mission, scaling, accountability and the like, the reality is that we often have to go back to basics and ask, ‘To what end?’ Defining an organization’s true purpose is absolutely essential to cultivating a performance culture.”

4.    Better outcome measurement may have negative short-term implications, but it’s a crucial investment in long-term improvement. Garval described another CFS leadership training exercise that involved identifying forces that support and restrain the organization’s increasing shift toward a performance culture. The worry that better outcome measurement may initially mean less impressive results for an organization was named as a restraining force, and is certainly a valid concern. Yet, Garval noted this is a concern that must be overcome, because the collection of data on baseline performance and subsequent goals for the organization’s improvement are what will allow CFS to identify and maximize its impact on those it serves. Morino recognizes this challenge—and opportunity—as well: “…The transition to outcomes-oriented management will almost certainly have some negative near-term implications for the organization. These changes, though, will just as certainly have a positive impact for the nonprofit in the long run as it becomes more effective in achieving its mission.”

Nonprofits leaders: Does your organization employ an outcome-oriented approach to its work? How has this approach influenced the management and impact of your organization?

Funders: To what extent have your funding decisions been driven by nonprofits’ outcome performance? How has your funding organization supported nonprofits’ efforts to improve their impact in measurable ways?