Outcome-Based Evaluation in Community Foundations

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Fall Conference for Community Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Lisa Bottoms Program Director for Human Services and Child and Youth Development, The Cleveland Foundation

By:  Lisa Bottoms

I attended a session at the Fall Community Foundations conference called “Making It Count: Incorporating an Outcomes-Based Grant Approach,” given by Hal Williams, Senior Fellow at The Rensselaerville Institute.  Mr. Williams asked us funders the difference between the following words:  benchmarks, indicators, goals, objectives, outcomes, results and impact.  So many words are used differently based on the many outcome frameworks and are often used in grant reporting documents.

Because of this, many non-profits approach outcome frameworks as a form of procedural compliance.  Basically they say, “tell us what to say and we’ll say it.”  If an outcome framework is to become a way in which we track success, it has to be more than fundraising and reporting.  It has to be about success for those that the non-profit helps.

During the session we were challenged to look at grant making through an investor’s lens.    Funders often see themselves as distributors of money vs. investors looking to build human capital as a result of the project funded.  Often, evaluation has become marginalized, happening at the end of a project when we are unable to make revisions. It is also viewed as costly vs. looking at outcomes and what was achieved as a result of the program success.  Instead of looking at measureable outcomes, funders should be asking what are we buying, what are the chances we will get it, is this the best possible use of money, was the result achieved and would it have happened if the program was not there.  Mr. Williams stated that this doesn’t have to be complicated.  If a non-profit organization can answer three questions for its programs then it has an outcome framework.  The questions are:

  1. How do you define success: meaning, results from your services?
  2. How do you know for sure when success has been achieved?
  3. Half way through your program, how do you know that you have enough time and money left to get to the success you have defined?

The first question asks you to be clear about results, not just activity and process.  This means you can tell investors what results you are committed to achieve.  The second question asks for clarity on the evidence to be used to confirm success.  You know now how to verify.  By answering the third question, you have a way of tracking progress not just against budget categories and work plans, but against participant progress to the gain they are to achieve.

Mr. Williams makes the point that very little of the traditional proposal content addresses results, but focuses on process instead.  Looking at outcomes in this way will change how foundations invest in programs and leaders as well as how funders operate.  This session was not only persuasive on the need for change, but it provided clear and practical ways on how to achieve it

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