GuideStar begins major effort to let charities report their outcomes

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GuideStar Premium is a new feature allowing charities to describe their goals and what progress they’re making. This provides NPOs the opportunity to quantify their outcomes and impacts.

This is a big step. It is a wonderful experiment.

GuideStar Platinum: Measuring Nonprofit Performance at Scale provides an overview of the new platform. This page provides more detail on the service.

Charities are allowed to self define the measures used. Organizations self measure their progress.

This will create wide variety in the measurement tools. I believe that is a wonderful thing. Self defining outcomes will allow a measure that is very carefully tailored to a particular organization. Over time I am guessing there will be some sort of comparability between charities within a specific sector which will allow some vague level of comparison within sectors.

The important point is that the outcomes for a rescue mission are radically different from an at-risk youth mentoring program, which in turn are radically different from a civil rights group or public issue advocacy group. Each organization needs a metric that specifically addresses what that organization is trying to accomplish.

There are somewhere in the range of 250 charities listed at Platinum Early Adopters. Congrats to these organizations taking the first struggling steps to publicly declare their quantitative progress against their outcome goals.

I took a look at the results for about a dozen of those early adopters. Here’s what I learned from my nonrandom sample.

Traditional input measurement

One charity I looked at used standard input metrics to measure the organization. They self-reported the number of donors, number of volunteers, and average dollar amount per donation.

On one hand, those are the standard input metrics that have been in place for decades and tell nothing of what the organization is doing with the money they receive.

On the other hand, information about the number of donors and average gift is not otherwise visible in either the audited financial statements or 990s. I don’t know anything about that organization so perhaps this tiny step reflects tremendous progress for them.

Hats off to them for getting started!

Traditional output measurement

Almost all of the reports I read listed only some variation of the typical output measures. For example, how many meals were served, how many people have been trained to carry out the program in the field, how many participants went to the classes, number of presentations made, how many dogs were rescued, or how many people subscribe to the newsletter.

Such measurements tell nothing about the impact of the organization. Did they actually move people forward or change the issue they wish to address? They don’t know, and we don’t know.

On the other hand, these are wonderful first steps. Such information is not otherwise visible. Even getting that information is a step forward. Congrats to those organizations!

Hopefully, these organizations will be able to move towards outcome measurement.

Outcome measurement

Two organizations I looked at have measurable outcomes. This means they’re trying to quantify whether they actually change that part of the world where they work.

Survivors of Torture, International has a mission statement of:

SURVIVORS exist to: Facilitate the healing of torture survivors and their families; Educate professionals and the public about torture and its consequences; Advocate for the abolition of torture.

Check out what they use as results #5, #6, #7, and #8:

Percentage of clients who report making progress towards their education goals.

Percentage of clients report making progress toward their housing goals.

Percentage of clients who report making progress toward their employment goals.

Percentage of clients report a reduction in the mental health symptoms.

There you have outcomes that are very difficult to measure and you can expect to vary widely from year to year. The tremendous value is that you can decide for yourself whether they are actually changing the world.

For example, the percentage of clients who report progress toward educational goals varies from 75% in ’13, to 94% in ’14, and dropping to 68% in ’15. You can decide for yourself how to assess those results. Looks rather impressive to me, even with a dip in 2015, that is quite impressive.

Eagle Rock Camp provides this mission statement:

To reconnect military families in a holistic camp environment that is therapeutic, faith-based, builds a healthy spirit and strong family bond.

Using interactive workshops and therapeutic recreation, we teach life skills to mom/dad/children. Military families attend 6 day/5 night retreat at no cost to them.

Check out their results #1 and #2:

Percent of families report they are supported in utilizing natural supports in the communities (e.g. family, friends, neighbors, churches, colleges, recreational services)

Percent of families who have improved or started budgeting, saving and use of credit plans for their families

Those are solid outcome measures. Phrased differently, this organization is measuring whether they are changing behaviors of people who participate in the program. Those two outcomes quantify whether they are achieving their goals.

For a really big change-the-world outcome, check out result #4:

A ZERO suicide rate amongst all military family members.

Now there is an outcome worth struggling with. They don’t have a way to measure this and they don’t quite yet have a way to engage this issue. Yet that represents a significant goal. It will be very difficult to develop a program and more difficult to actually move the metric. If they can find a way to engage that issue, quantify it, and actually show some little progress, that would be huge.

Charting Impact

The platform closes with a space to allow charities to address five specific issues. These are:

What is the organization aiming to accomplish?

What are the organization’s key strategies for making this happen?

What are the organization’s capabilities for doing this?

How will they know they are making progress?

What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?

Those are powerful questions.

An organization addressing those issues will give readers the opportunity to assess whether the organization is seriously engaged on those issues and is trying to make progress, or whether they are or are not engaged in a worthwhile issue, or whether they are just blowing smoke.

By the time you read the description of programs, the outcome measures reported, and a narrative on where the organization is going and how they’re going to get there, you will have a good feel for what impact the organization may be having. This will give you far better read on whether you want to support the organization than what you will see on the functional expense allocation page of the 990.

If you have read all the way to the end of this post, you may be interested to know that as a CPA, I have a vague idea how I could test some of those measurements and put some sort of opinion around them.

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