06/23/2012 11:55 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2012

The Imperfect Storm: Define by Results (Series Post 3)

In our initial blog post, we identified five key shifts affecting the environment for nonprofits that have co-mingled with the economy to create the potential for continued rough times. The last post covered Shift #1: Nonprofits Need to Engage Their Donors. In this post, we'll explore how nonprofits need to change how they're telling their stories.

Shift #2: Nonprofits need to define themselves by their results

When you look at the websites of many nonprofits, as we do a lot, it's pretty easy to see that these organizations help a lot of people in need. Ironically, what you can't tell is just how many of these people tangibly improved their lives as a result of what the nonprofits did for them. One website, speaking of its work mentoring young kids, might give you numbers of how many people were matched up through their programs. That's pretty typical. But having a mentor is not the same as getting to grade level in reading, nor is it a promise that a child will be successful in some new way. Just like signing up for a workshop doesn't guarantee that by the end you'll have lost weight or stopped smoking.

Why do we make this point? Because we think nonprofits should cut to the chase and focus on achievement.

The traditional approach to outcomes muddies as much as it tries to clarify how nonprofits show the human gains they achieve. Moving to a clear report card of results, published annually, puts nonprofits in the outcome business, which is where they should be. But many nonprofits are running on the hamster wheel, trying to please funders who ask for a variety of different measurements of success, many of which don't move the organization toward a clear picture of true results. This is progress going in the wrong direction. Why?

First, nonprofits seeking grants get wrapped up trying to remember and repeat the language the funder uses. Is it a goal, an outcome, a result, a benefit or a target? And to show progress, are they establishing a benchmark, an indicator or a milestone? Given that one funder's benchmark is another's indicator, the nonprofit has to keep learning new terms just to comply with the language requirement. They'll do it because they want the money, not because it is essential to their mission, their work. What's even more serious is how outcomes have become their own form of compliance. Instead of looking for the core logic of a program, nonprofits want to make sure they have the right words in the right columns on the chart. They perfect the document rather than the program.

There are nonprofits out there that are changing the way "things are done" in the world of outcomes. If you know of one that has nailed this concept of results, a trailblazer, one that can teach us all, please share. Championing success is one way we will help others follow suit. Next time, we'll introduce Shift #3: Nonprofits need to ride for their brand.