Measuring Outcomes to Prove Impact

Associations struggle with setting meaningful metrics when mission impact matters more than easier to track performance measures. 

In strategic planning, I’ve argued against metrics that are little more than did we complete the tasks related to an objective or initiative. I’ve argued in favor of setting metrics at the goal level because they might indicate whether the association is having an impact.

Now I can bolster my case with an initial analysis from a new ASAE Foundation research project, Metrics for Success. The researchers, Root Cause, make a distinction between process indicators that measure whether activities and interventions are being executed, and outcome indicators that measure whether the expected outcomes are being achieved or require an adjustment in strategy. This is my point: associations have a greater need for outcomes indicators. 

The researchers explain: “Fundamentally, a performance measurement system should enable an organization to test the validity of assumptions underlying certain strategies, and to ensure that its programs, activities and services are resulting in expected outcomes on the way to its intended impact… [Associations should be able to use metrics to] improve strategy execution as well as recognize those strategies that may be well executed but are based on flawed assumptions, and so may need to be overhauled entirely.”

To find the right metric, I like to ask how would you know you have succeeded?  If the association has set an outcomes goal, rather than a functional goal, meaningful metrics are easier to identify. 

Associations have an added challenge. They “must not only monitor their own organizational health and effectiveness but also assess the impact of their activities on member professions and/or organizations as well as the larger industry they serve.”  My simple question to probe this impact is how are you creating or increasing member value?

The researchers affirm that metrics should be tied to strategic plans. I find all types of associations eager to make metrics an integral part of strategic planning. They only struggle with how to get beyond measuring operational success to gauging their impact. In complex systems of interacting agents of change and contextual factors, it can be hard to measure what any organization's actions contributed to a good or bad outcome. 

Root Cause suggests associations build a logic model expressing their theory of change. What actions will achieve your intended impact? “Theories of change help avoid ‘stove-piping’ or only identifying success at the program level, so organizations can see how success in one area supports the whole organization to make progress towards it intended impact.”

Articulating a theory of change might lead to a stronger and better honed set of goals. When leaders decide what is most important to do, they seem to have some internal sense of a theory of change. If boards tried to explicitly express that model, would they feel more confident in choosing the best strategic direction? It's a tactic I am willing to test at the next available opportunity. 

Root Cause also hints at another useful practice—defining outcomes in short, medium and long-term time frames. Leaders might set bolder goals if they could openly acknowledge how much progress is feasible for each time period.

Associations need this substantive research on metrics. Members and donors value organizations that are accountable for outcomes. The right metrics can be proof they have invested their time, money and trust wisely.