Eddie Gale, Vermont program officer for the A.D. Henderson Foundationexplains why it is important for nonprofits to be accountable for the work they do. In this interview with Common Good Vermont, Gale presents an funders perspective on the vital connection between outcomes and nonprofit performance.
Outcomes are ultimately the good that is achieved as the result of implementing a project. When all is said and done, outcomes are the answer to the “so what?” question. In the case of the Henderson Foundation, how are children better off? Has the quality of their childcare improved? Are they ready to enter Kindergarten? Are they performing in school? Are they exhibiting positive and not negative behaviors?
Why is this important to you?
A. The foundation has a limited amount of money to invest, and it wants to achieve as big an impact as it can for its investment. If you think in terms of a nonprofit organization asking the foundation to pay for implementing a project, the foundation is paying for outputs, or the activities needed to carry out the project. However, what the foundation is buying is the outcomes: how are the children better off. The outcomes can be considered as the return on investment that comes back to the foundation.
Why is it important for the organizations and health of the NPO Sector?
In the non-profit sector, the outcomes are the profits that are ultimately realized by the organization. The more good work an organization achieves, the more attractive it becomes as a place for a foundation or the government or other funding source to invest. In order to convince its investors that these outcomes/profits are real, the organization has to find a way to document that the outcomes were indeed achieved.
Can you give examples of effective organizations that use outcomes and indicators to tell their story?
I can think of one that is partially developed and has a vision for where it would like to be: The Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative helps start partnerships between school districts and private childcare providers to deliver high quality preschool for three and four year olds. As outcomes in that project, we can count the number of school districts that have expanded their preschool programs, the growing numbers of children who are enrolled in high quality preschool, and improvements in quality at childcare centers that also serve children younger than age three. What this project also aims to do is find a way to track the progress of children who attend publicly supported preschool and document the impact high quality preschool has on their later school performance.
What do their proposals look like?
In general, a solid proposal details the problem to be solved, or what I like to call, “what’s broken”. In the case of the Vermont Community Preschool Collaborative, the proposal discusses the needs of families for quality childcare and the challenges for funding preschool. The project section of the proposal discusses the opportunity for school/childcare partnerships, and the inputs (start-up funding and technical assistance) needed to create those partnerships. The outcome section clearly states, as a result of these activities, here’s the return on your investment: more children enrolled in high quality preschool programs, and ultimately more children performing well in school.
Do you think funders need to learn more about how to structure their expectations?
Every funder is a unique entity. I think the biggest need and challenge for funders is to communicate their expectations. Of course, before you can communicate expectations, you have to articulate what those expectations are. In the matter of outcomes, there is still the question of accountability (outputs: did you do what you said you would do.) However, I think the sea change in thinking is that the outputs are not as important as whether or not any real and tangible outcomes were achieved.
Where do orgs and funders go to learn about outcomes, indicators and performance?
The United Ways have been doing a lot of work related to developing outcome indicators for the United Ways’ investments. Some individual organizations, such as the Lamoille Family Center, are also taking a lead on reviving the Mark Friedman/Results Based Accountability framework that was prevalent within the Agency of Human Services during the Dean administration and the Con Hogan era. My Henderson Foundation colleague in Fort Lauderdale has helped organize the entire children’s services sector to work with Mark Friedman’s Fiscal Policies Institute out of Santa Fe to make Results Based Accountability the norm in Broward County, Florida.