The social sector has long struggled to organize, measure, and understand social change. And, though we have made many important strides, like developing improved reporting and outcomes tracking software, evaluators still face a number of obstacles in their attempts to measure and demonstrate the value of social impact programs. To better measure social impact, we need standardization to compare social programs and gain insights into what really works.
Unfortunately, the sector has failed in our attempts to standardize metrics because every organization uses different strategies to accomplish their goals. After years of experience helping nonprofits evaluate their work, my “aha” is that we must standardize desired changes in behavior, condition, or status. Simply, we should track progress against the social benefits we are trying to produce. The first step is to codify the true results of an organization’s programmatic efforts: outcomes.
To date, the focus on outcomes has often centered on attempting to measure them idiosyncratically, evaluating one organization at a time. I am confident, and the work we’re doing at Mission Measurement is demonstrating, that the real value is in standardizing outcomes across the entire social sector.
The fundamental benefit of creating a universal set of outcomes is that standard outcomes make it possible to categorize and identify social programs in a more meaningful way. Rather than basing research on individual subject areas, like education or the arts, we can research the outcomes organizations are trying to produce, like improving high school graduation rates or encouraging creative expression.
Another advantage of universal outcomes is they will serve as a common denominator for comparison of programs across the social sector. If we focus on measuring how effectively various approaches are at achieving certain outcomes, we do not need to worry about tracking the numerous performance metrics that offer no comparative value. Measuring program success against one common denominator enables us to gather insights like cost per outcome and return on investment, on an increasing scale. And, eventually, as we collect more and more data, it will be possible for the sector to benchmark against standard efficacy rates.
An additional benefit of standardizing outcomes is that program design and learning will become more efficient. It will be easier for researchers to pinpoint program attributes that increase the efficacy of an intervention and even determine how different programs can combine efforts to produce in-demand outcomes.
To underpin the measurement system that provides these benefits we built a tool that I call the Universal Outcomes Taxonomy™. It is based on years of research to meticulously document over 78,000 outcomes data points from over 5,800 social programs. The work systematically organized those outcomes by getting rid of duplicates, standardizing language, creating hierarchies, and ultimately creating a universal taxonomy.
Unsurprisingly, in creating the taxonomy we discovered that many social sector programs aimed to produce similar outcomes, and just articulated their goals differently– one program might describe its objective as “student achievement,” another organization might aim to “improve test scores” and a third might endeavor might set out to improve “academic performance.” While each of these programs expresses success differently, all are actually aiming at producing the outcome of Improving Academic Achievement.
Our breakthrough was that across the entire social sector, there were only 132 common outcomes. These outcomes can be indexed by program type and sub-type, and classified into a functional taxonomy.
Now, grants managers can begin using this framework to organize their grants against priority outcomes and analyze the impact of their work on a portfolio level. As investors in social impact, we can better measure the resources dedicated to priority outcomes, review the relative contribution of each program in a portfolio to its relevant outcome, and understand the overall performance of the portfolio.