Question Zero Part 4: Goals, Activities and Outcomes

The question of measuring outcomes, defining goals and managing activities can be quite complex and many people have written on this topic. I don’t want to rehash that work or get into a debate about the exact terminology, I don’t think that is important.

What I tell groups I work with is that you do need to be clear on a few key pieces and you can label them however you want.

First – there should be a hierarchy of detail.

  • Start at a high-level mission or vision for an organization such as “strengthen the economy by raising the incomes of poor families” [from A Living Wage for Families]. While not a single measure, this sets the overall framework for your organization.
  • Then getting into specific goals and objectives
  • Next define the specific activities to achieve each goal
  • Finally think about the outcomes of your activities – how is this linked back to your mission

Where most organizations get into trouble with communications is that they focus on measuring activities or outputs not outcomes. And in fairness, this is often easier. It is simpler to measure how many kids went through your after-school reading program than it is to measure the impact this had on family cohesiveness. This is the critical piece of tying your measurement back to supporting your mission using simple measures that can be easily captured.

As an example, I worked with a group of high-school students that organized a conference by high-school students and for high-school students. The conference was designed to get kids involved in the community by volunteering, creating non-profits, working on environmental projects, etc. When we talked about measurement, they immediately focused on the low-level details like how many tonnes of carbon were reduced by the various environmental projects. While useful, what is really interesting is what the group is actually doing is building a community of engaged youth leaders. And the tonnes of carbon doesn’t measure that! Instead, I suggested looking at how many kids came back year after year, how many were still engaged with their projects after two years, how many “alumni” returned to the conference to donate their time. These measures start to get at the social and community value being built.

The process of defining measures is often an iterative one, starting with that high-level and dropping down to the details.  You need to remember to use your mission as a check on the measures you choose – do they really communicate the value you are delivering to the community? Or are you simply measuring your activities without linking that to a meaningful impact?

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