September 23, 2017
 
Building an Outcomes Driven, Learning Oriented Organization

By Deborah Connolly Youngblood

Deborah Connolly Youngblood
Aligning mission, goals, and metrics can build a powerful nonprofit to improve client outcomes, maximize staff talents, and attract investors, but it requires that the organization be outcomes driven and learning oriented.

Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), formerly Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston based nonprofit, spent seven years developing an outcomes driven learning organization that produced promising results for participants, staff generated innovations, and national attention from a variety of funders. Creating that culture was based on three key components:
  1. Investing upfront in research capacity
  2. Making data relevant and accessible to everyone in the organization
  3. Cultivating learning
Here are some of the approaches EMPath used.

Investing Upfront in Research Capacity

The expense of having internal research capacity is not insignificant, but the value of doing so is high. However, the investment in research needs to include full commitment from leadership and integration of data and inquiry at all levels of the organization. At EMPath, the Research and Innovation department cost approximately 3.5% of the entire agency budget of roughly $10 million dollars. These costs were almost entirely overhead, as very little of the departmental expenses are covered through other funding sources.

Research staff dedicated to analysis of the day-to-day work and the broader landscape in which services are delivered, set the stage for strategic innovation and proving the organization’s value to external stakeholders.

While committing extensive resources to research may be unrealistic for some, it’s possible to start small and grow over time. Start by identifying two or three key metrics that are the most fundamental to supporting your mission, and then track those diligently. Make sure that the expectations for what you want to get out of your efforts correspond to what you put in. And don’t skimp on the strong and consistent message from leadership that this work is important; they demonstrate that by ensuring that data informs decision making processes at all levels.

Making Data Relevant and Accessible to Everyone

Data can spark new ideas and innovations when relevant and accessible. To support the connection between metrics and day to day work, it is critical to involve staff early. Their input increases the likelihood of good data gets entered into the system, which is a prerequisite of quality metrics coming out.

Here are some suggestions on how to do this:

  • Before developing outcomes measurement questions, talk with staff about their work. A question such as, “How do you know if you are making a difference?”, promotes reflection on what is meaningful to staff as a measure of success.

  • Align data plans with service plans, keeping work flow and client/interviewer rapport in mind.

  • Invest in training staff in both data collection (how to ask the questions) and using the data system – to enter data as well as how to use and interpret the data to further their own work.

  • Celebrate staff efforts and results. For example, EMPath developed data awards for strong users of the database. Later, it created “Bragging Boards” that highlight impressive programmatic outcomes for public display.

  • Building an outcomes data system and achieving meaningful reports takes time, two years or more. Knowing the timeframe and resource commitment upfront and celebrating successes along the way maintains momentum.
Cultivating Learning

Driving toward specific outcomes means you need to continually measure not just the progress of participants but also the progress of the organization. It’s important to recognize that learning takes place from successes and from shortfalls. This is, in fact, the very core of being an outcome driven learning organization.

It requires risk and discipline to articulate a desired outcome, measure for impact, and re-adjust if you did not achieve the goal. The benefit, however, can be equally rewarding. Staff feel most invested in their work when they can see how they contribute to an organization. The learning associated with constantly evaluating, exploring, and measuring success can provide positive outcomes for participants receiving services and, just as importantly, boost staff morale as they witness the impact of their collective work.

A learning organization deeply invests in finding out what works and what doesn’t in order to adjust strategy and improve. It’s an investment, but when done well pays off in terms of client success and organizational goal achievement.

Deborah Connolly Youngblood, authored this article while serving as vice president of research and innovation at EMPath. Since 2015, she has been Commissioner of Health and Human Services for the City of Newton. Email her at dyoungblood@newtonma.gov.

March 2017

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