Nonprofit’s ultimate outcome: Bringing unicorns back to our world


Soup-Kitchen_DBThe concept of “outcomes” has been well-beaten into all of us nonprofit folks. So much so, in fact, that I start to apply this concept to all sorts of non-work stuff. For example, watching Games of Thrones reduces stress, which allows me to be happier, which makes me a more thoughtful life partner. And that’s why I didn’t do dishes yesterday. 

Outcomes and metrics are great and necessary, but I am wondering if we are starting to take them too far. Every once in a while, we in the field do the infamous “so that” exercise. We start with an activity, let’s say tutoring kids, and we think about the effects: We tutor kids so that they can get better grades in school…so that they can move up a grade…so that they can graduate from high school…so that they can get into college…so that they can graduate from college…so that they can get a good job. Therefore, tutoring kids helps them get a good job. Sweet!

But at what point in the “so that” chain is it OK to stop and say, that’s a good outcome to fund? At what point does it become ridiculous? In recent years, it feels like we nonprofits have been pushed to expand this chain, because the further up the chain we go, the stronger and more compelling the outcomes seem to be, and the easier it is for funders and donors to rationalize funding programs. But sometimes it makes no sense. Sometimes it obscures the fact that we should do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Because of the funding dynamics, we often have wacky conversations like this:

Funder (on a program visit): So how many hot meals does XYZ Organization serve each week?

ED: In a typical week, we provide about 900 meals to low-income seniors.

Funder: That’s wonderful. What are the outcomes of your program?

ED: Well…uh…the seniors come in hungry, and they leave full.

Funder: Yeah, but what does that do in terms of impact? Can you elaborate?

ED (remembering the “so that” exercise): Oh, yes, of course. When low-income seniors have access to nutritious food, their health improves, which means they function better. Healthy, well-functioning seniors lead to stronger communities. It also reduces accidents, which every year cost the state millions of dollars in emergency services.

Funder: Excellent! What evaluation instruments do you—

ED: But that’s not all! Those millions of dollars that would have been wasted on emergency services can now be invested in education, infrastructure, and economic development. Those investments will lead to a stronger state, which leads to a stronger United States, which will allow us to be better gunicorn 2uardians of the globe, which may lead to world peace. And world peace means that the unicorns may return. The ultimate outcome of our hot-meal program is for the self-exiled unicorns to return to our world!

All right, that last part is something that we might think when in this situation, but would never say out loud to funders or donors, who wield the power of life and death over programs. We learn to say the right words because we know how vital these services are, but on the inside, we’re screaming “People not being hungry is a great outcome already! Gawwwwwww!!”

A couple of years ago, I helped start the World Dance Party, which is just a giant multi-cultural/multi-generational potluck party where people learn eight different dances in mini 20-minutes lessons, and everyone dances. That’s it. No lectures, no fundraising. It is free and attracts 200 to 400 people of all ages and backgrounds. The outcomes of WDP include getting neighbors to get to know one another and to feel connected to their community. I sometimes get blank stares when I tell people this, though, as if they’re expecting something sexier, like that these World Dance Parties, through getting neighbors to know one another better, reduce gun violence by 25%.

Funders’ push for “more compelling outcomes” goes too far sometimes, forcing us nonprofits to claim to be responsible for outcomes that make no sense for our programs. After-school arts or sports programs, for example, should not have to be directly responsible for and judged on increasing graduation rates, or getting kids into college. They increase kids’ confidence and love of learning and teamwork and a host of other skills. Those are absolutely wonderful outcomes by themselves and should be funded.

If we think about it, everything we do in this field has one ultimate goal: to increase happiness. All of us are happier when everyone’s basic needs are met, when we all live in safe and strong and supportive communities, when we all continue to learn and grow and reach our potential and contribute back.

But increasing society’s happiness is too fluffy an outcome, so we usually stop the “so that” chain at things like reducing crimes and saving taxpayers millions. The insidious effect of this sort of thinking is that we lessen the intrinsic values of human lives. Sheltering our homeless so that they are not battered by the elements for even a single night, that is itself intrinsically worth doing, because we don’t want our fellow community members to suffer. Building confidence and creativity in kids through teaching them photography or beat-boxing or poetry, that is itself intrinsically worth doing, because all kids should have opportunities to grow and explore their world. Having fun World Dance Parties so that people can feel connected to their neighbors and to their community, that is itself intrinsically worth doing because everyone deserves to feel a sense of belonging.

Sure, the above activities and other stuff we do in the field will lessen crimes, save society money, etc., but those effects should be considered awesome bonuses. They should not be the main reason why we do the things we do. We should do our work with the belief that every individual life has an intrinsic value independent of its value to society.

Only when we all truly believe that, will the unicorns come back to our world.


19 thoughts on “Nonprofit’s ultimate outcome: Bringing unicorns back to our world

    1. Vu

      Thanks for commenting, Debbie. We do face a lot, don’t we? Maybe we don’t need the unicorns to come back. We ARE unicorns!

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  2. Claire

    What if we have no empirical, evidence-based studies to back up our outcomes? To hire someone to do a study would probably cost two to three times our existing operating budget. How about **compassion** as a reason to fund, rather than return on investment? We can feed elderly people because it’s the right thing to do. We can house the homeless because it’s not fun to sleep on the street, without worrying about the cost-effectiveness of providing that home. Dang.

    All these demands for proving outcomes makes me want to scream. ight now, we have set-up that gives those who are trying to heal the world little scraps and crumbs that fall from the great feasting table of capitalism. What funders and foundations want is for nonprofits to beg and squabble for crumbs. They want those organizations and charities that are rewarded with these teeny tiny crumbs go through enormous hoops and barriers to get or continue to get these crumbs. And be ever so fawningly grateful to receive them, tug the forelock, thank you guv’nor. This way they feel important and gratified by their generosity.

    What we really need is radical transformation of the economic and political structure of this country and the world. An end to a set-up that funnels more and more and more and more power and wealth to those who already have so much power and wealth that it is unimaginable to most of us. We need a radical transformation of a system that punishes the poor, and ever-makes their situation more hopeless and untenable.

    Since I don’t see the revolution happening any time soon, I guess it’s time to write another grant application, fill out another funder’s report, and write another thank you letter. Feh.

    1. Vu

      Claire, I totally understand your frustration. There are a lot of challenges in the field. However, I would have to disagree with you a little on funders’ motivations and intentions. I think the majority are aligned with our goals of making the world better. I think the whole system needs to be fixed, including the restrictions we put on nonprofits, the lack of significant investments, the one-year grants, and the mainstream definitions of things like “capacity” that leave behind many communities, such as communities of color.

  3. Charles Matheus

    Vu, I think I do my work for the same reason you do yours. I am a youth advocate _because it is the right thing to do_. However, I disagree that the nonprofit industry should content itself with that kind of motivation. A program that creates dance parties in neighborhoods sounds like the most fun, happy, uplifting thing EVER. I want in. However, I don’t think that program should receive public money or support unless it can show that it creates some kind of lasting impact on the community. (I also think Michael Bay should stop receiving money for his films – for the same reason.)

    We have been using nonprofits to feed the hungry, enrich kids’ lives and bring art to the community for over 100 years. And people are still hungry, communities are more fractious, and kids have fewer options. We are failing. Yes, it’s not the direct _fault_ of the nonprofit sector – massive economic and cultural changes have made our work harder not easier. But, to the extent that we content ourselves with fulfilling our “heart mission” and calling that good enough, we are failing.

    I am not advocating that we allow external outcome measures defined by bureaucrats and large foundations to dictate everything we do. Instead, I believe it behooves us in the NP world to make sure we are beholden to our clients and community. At Boys to Men Mentoring Network we run amazing programs that create beauty and magic and change in the lives of young men. But we don’t know, yet, how much impact we are having over time and in what areas. As a result, we are going to spend the next year figuring out how to create meaningful goals and measures of our impact on our young clients, their families, and the community as a whole. If it turns out we are not having the kind of impact we want to have then we MUST be brave and change the program. Not just because we want to please and convince our funders but _because it is the right thing to do_. Our young men and their families deserve a program that works.

    It will take time and at least a part time salary. We may actually have to decide not to run an additional program in order to spend the resources on assessment. I have a short time on this planet and I want to make sure that this work that feels so good is actually doing the best good it can. And that will make me feel even better and more purposeful. And that will be fun and beautiful.

    Keep the flame lit, y’all.

    1. Vu

      Charles, thank you for taking time to write a thoughtful comment with many good points. I agree with you on many of your points, such as we should all strive for quality, assess ourselves to ensure we are meeting outcomes, and change programs to make them better, or even discontinue them altogether when they are not proven to work, and ensure accountability to our supporters.

      These things, however, do not necessarily run counter to valuing the intrinsic worth of individuals, something that has been decreasing lately as everyone enters “survival mode.” A senior hot-meal program should be assessed for its impact. Is it actually making seniors’ lives better? If it’s not, it should be cut. Youth programs should be assessed on quality and impact on kids and society, etc.

      But we must use the right measures and outcomes. Senior programs should not be measured and funded by how much they reduce crimes, for example. Maybe a study finds that helping low-income seniors doesn’t reduce crimes at all; does that mean we should no longer feed hungry seniors?

      As for the World Dance Parties, I would have to push back a little. At first it may seem frivolous, these dances. But really, if we use the “impact to society” arguments, community-building events like this are critical. If we build more bridges between people, get neighbors to know one another better, it will reduce crimes and save taxpayers money in the long run. Tons of studies have shown this. And the parties themselves don’t take much money, since it’s a potluck, and practically everything is donated. But my argument is that “increasing happiness and connection among neighbors” is a good enough reason to fund something, once it is proven that it actually does that (and it does). If it doesn’t, and it just fosters a bunch of drunk people, then we would of course not encourage it.

      1. Charles Matheus

        Actually, Vu, because Prescott is such a retirement destination, hungry seniors are our #1 crime problem. I’ve been mugged in front of Denny’s four times in one month. (Kidding!)

        I don’t think the Dance Parties are frivolous at all. My first foray into NP programming hosted seasonal potlucks and neighborhood gatherings in order to promote personal as well as community health. I would love to attend one of your Dance Parties and I would gladly fill out a survey afterward to tell you how much more I love my neighbors and how much more likely I am to engage in community dialog. I’d even help track 911 calls to see if they declined at all in post Dance Party neighborhoods. Heck ya. (Or whatever outcome you all decide you want to move.)

        Vu, I think we are pretty much on the same page on this. Come up with a beautiful idea that _is the right thing to do._ Decide what impact we want to have. Implement the idea. Have fun. Make sure we are having the impact we want to have. (Don’t bother measuring unrelated or unimportant stuff.) Alter the program if need be. Repeat as necessary.

        I’m gonna go write a grant for a new teen center now. Our grant app targets a few of the outcome that the adult community and the foundation wants AND a few that the teens and the youth advocates want. A bit of a tricky balance, but I expect there to be unicorns in the teen center come spring.

        Thanks for dialoging with me!

    2. Vu

      Charles, thank you for talking with me and helping me to clarify my points. And thanks for all you do. Good luck with the grant. And how about putting on a World Dance Party in your neighborhood?!!!

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  6. Michelle Sarabia

    As a public school teacher, I cannot express how much this blog resonates. Well done!

  7. Maureen

    I think the “so that” exercise is more useful for developing a theory of change, not outcomes. Kids getting jobs 5 years after they finish your program is not an outcome of your program, although it may be connected to your theory of change. I think more clarity about this stuff is always a good thing.

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