The impacts of charitable work used to be a given. Here, Esther Goodwin Brown explores the shift towards reflective evaluation; from outputs, to outcomes.
The public and charity sector’s primary concern was its ability to establish sufficient provision to meet need. However, during the last decade, UK national frameworks, such as the Every Child Matters initiative in 2003,began to outline the specific outcomes to be achieved. Specific goals, such as to “achieve economic well-being”, drew greater emphasis on the how and why of organisational aims.
The success of such frameworks has led the public, community and voluntary sectors to increasingly adopt the outcomes approach. From the Scottish government to Rethink Mental Illness. The outcomes approach advocates clarity and transparency in organisational aims accompanied by clear assessment. In theory, it encourages organisations to focus on the difference they want to make by being realistic about achievements and beneficiaries.
Having a distinct theory of change ensures all internal and external stakeholders can be clear on what the organisation wants to achieve as well as how this will be evidenced. Outcomes are different from outputs, in that they relate to the quality of change, benefit or learning you hope to achieve, rather than quantity of provision.
How to Evaluate?
Outcomes Stars and Well-Being scales are but a few of the many evaluation frameworks which have been established to capture outcomes. Organisations may choose to evidence their outcomes differently, but all should aim to illustrate in their measurement a distance travelled as a result of intervention, providing tangible evidence and evaluation statistics where possible.
This approach has had a knock on effect for funders. Many charitable funders now present themselves as ‘outcomes funders’. Grantees are required to identify projected and intended outcomes to be met by their projects. These requirements require evidence, with a strong emphasis on outcomes measurement. On-going evaluation allows for the identification of outcomes at every stage, rather than assuming outcomes from outputs.
There can be draw backs to such an approach with some grant holders feeling unable to be truthful about challenges experienced in their work, through fear of not meeting the outcomes set out by funders.
The outcomes approach aims at producing maximum possible positive impact for beneficiaries. It is necessary for the funders to expect and understand that there will be bumps in the road. Project reports should therefore include areas for improvement as well as areas for learning. This will ensure evidence is not purely provided to tick boxes for future funding.
Why use the outcomes approach?
Being clear about what you want to achieve focuses energy and resources more efficiently. Having a clear set of outcomes you are working towards will mean organisational processes become more streamlined and have clear importance. A process of on-going evaluation hand in hand with outcomes measurement ensures you are reflecting on organisational processes, making improvements and adjustments to intended outcomes where needed.
Part of the success of the outcomes approach is the transparency it encourages in charities and public service bodies.
The necessity of setting targets and goals can lead to a greater public understanding of what an organisation actually does and thus its social value. This can also narrow the gap between project workers and (potential) funders making clearer an alignment across the three sectors. This also means that partnerships with organisations with a similar target group of beneficiaries or intended outcomes is made easier.
The idea of output and goals of a project is not new but the use of more explicit outcomes, evidenced using clear measurement can make clear the intentions of a project to those not working directly with it.
Where next for the outcomes approach?
Organisations consulting on the outcomes approach advocate forms of shared measurement. Organisations with similar outcomes would use similar forms of outcomes measurement, contributing to a more comparable data set that could be drawn on by stakeholders across the board. The danger that this would cause reductionism in the field, whereby organisations feel less able to explore unique outcomes due to the need to align themselves with similar organisations is something that needs to be considered.
The outcome approach, if implemented properly with scope for other measurements, will ultimately lead to better quality of provision and centralising time and energy towards making positive impact on the beneficiaries at the heart of the organisation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.