Tuesday, February 20 , 2018, 9:02 pm | Fair 50º


Cynder Sinclair: Systems View of Your Nonprofit Programs Helps Measure ‘So What?’ Factor

For the past several years, we’ve heard a lot about measuring nonprofit program outcomes. Funders want proof of program effectiveness. Donors want it. Volunteers want it. Even the government wants it. For many nonprofits, especially human services and the arts, measuring outcomes is a relatively new concept. And it can be confusing.

Many wonder, what is considered an outcome and how we can measure it? How can we tell the outcome of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s new exhibit? How can we measure the result of sending Girl Scouts to camp? What about the Santa Barbara Symphony’s upcoming Porgy & Bess concert?

Looking at your organization’s programs as a system makes measurement easier. But what is a system? It’s an integrated, organized collection of parts that leads to accomplishment of your goals. An overarching system is made up of many smaller systems. Understanding the various components of a system for programs can help ensure you are measuring the right things.

Let’s break a program system down into the following six parts:

» Inputs. These are all the things that go into the program processes. Inputs include things like staff, volunteers, money, equipment, facilities, supplies and ideas. Make a list of all the inputs necessary to propel your nonprofit’s programs.

» Processes. These are the activities you do to manipulate the various inputs to achieve your goals. If you are a food bank, your processes are what you do with the food coming in and going out and what you do to educate your clients.

» Outputs. These are the tangible results produced by the system. Outputs are often mistakenly used to indicate the success of an organization’s programs. Using the food bank example, outputs can be the number of people fed. Carter McNamara in his Field Guide to Nonprofit Program Design, Marketing and Evaluation, which is used by Fielding’s Nonprofit Leadership Certificate program, explains that, “The success of a nonprofit organization or program is determined, not by the range and number of clients … (the program’s outputs), but by how the clients benefited (the program’s outcomes).”

» Outcomes. These are the so what. How did the food bank clients benefit from the food bank programs? Are they healthier? If a health clinic served 1,000 diabetic patients in a given month, how did those patients benefit from the service? How many had reduced A1C levels as a result of treatment? Outcomes are usually knowledge, behaviors or attitudes that have been changed as a result of the programs.

» Feedback. The various parts of the system continuously exchange feedback loops. Feedback can be informal among staff, board members or community supporters, or it can be more formal in the form of evaluations and surveys. Effective leaders use feedback to improve their program processes and outcomes.

» Goals. These are the ultimate purpose for the systems — what your organization wants to accomplish. Since everything flows from the goals, it’s critical that the organization’s leaders establish and communicate goals throughout the entity. Goals flow from the mission, vision and values and are the result of solid strategic planning.

Putting the Program System Together

Given this information, we notice that everything flows from the goals. Once the goals are established, we can identify the inputs (materials), processes (activities), outputs (results) and outcomes (impacts). These are set in motion and continuously adjusted by the feedback and external environment.

It’s important to measure all parts of the system. Just make sure you are measuring the right components for the right reasons. Using a systems approach to your program development and execution can add clarity of vision and high performance. Your funders will love it!

Benefits of Taking a Systems View of your Programs

Taking a systems view of your programs not only helps you measure outcomes for your funders and board members, it provides many additional benefits. Once you are clear about your program system and its components, you can be more effective in your planning, create more pertinent evaluation tools, be a more effective leader, promote more effective communication, do a better job of solving problems and develop your organization more successfully.

Identifying and understanding the major parts of your programs and how the parts work together can help you develop a systems approach to your programs. Once that happens, you will be measuring the right things.

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >