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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.

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