Ending homelessness. Improving school readiness. Preserving wildlife habitat. Impact statements can inspire and bring together partners, staff and funders around common, long-term goals that deserve focused efforts and resources.

At the same time, these kinds of large-scale changes in populations and landscapes can take a long time to occur, and it can be difficult to disentangle what is making a difference. Understanding the changes that need to be achieved on the way to the impact are critical.

Articulating what those changes, or outcomes, are can be a challenge. They can happen sooner or later. Outcomes can happen for individuals, organizations, systems, or fields. They can reflect things that need to improve, decrease or be maintained. They can be dependent on other events happening first, or be “linchpin” outcomes that have to happen to unlock a number of important changes.

Last year I got the chance to work with an organization that supported women’s movements around the world. They had a lot of important principles and theory behind their work, related to power and organizing and feminist popular education, and an inspirational vision: With the power of our numbers – organized around common agendas - women can better challenge inequality and violence, transform power, and make strides in ensuring justice and peace for all.

But they struggled with having a way to talk about their work with others and looking across different movements they were supporting. In part, this was because they had outcomes occurring at many different levels:

  1. Individuals: Women were learning more about their own opportunities for power, building their awareness of how they could take action, and gaining confidence to take action.
  2. As a group: Women’s movements built their capacity to organize, take actions, and develop partnerships.
  3. Local institutions: Through organizing and actions, women sought changes in things like policies, norms, power structures, and governance.
  4. Local communities: Ultimately they sought improvements in things like family livelihoods, the safety and self-efficacy of women, equity, and civil society.
  5. Global and field changes: The NGO we worked with supported these changes by building the capacity and supports for women in different communities. They also sought to influence others to support women’s movements, increase the efficacy of feminist popular education approaches, develop global and multilateral partners to support the work, and provide a fertile ecosystem within which these movements were occurring.

Without letting go of the true complexities of working in many different settings with movements that are not static, creating clarity on what kinds of outcomes were desired gives this nonprofit the opportunity to be more clear with partners around the world, align better internally, and have better ways to talk about their progress and contribution to the longer time impact and vision.

Outcome Tools

Outcomes. Impact. Metrics. Working at the intersection of philanthropy and evaluation can lead to a lot of jargon. But behind the jargon are important concepts of how to think about seeing the change in the world we desire—and there are tools to help. There are useful frameworks for identifying kinds of outcomes that might be useful. And techniques like documenting a theory of change or creating an outcome map can help anyone show how they think they can actually start to make a dent in their ambitious end goal.