Bring Unicorns Back to Our World: The Problem with Outcomes

How many outcomes and logic models can fit on the head of a pin? Humor columnist Vu Le enlightens us:

The 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 so that I have increased knowledge of pop culture and thus higher social status.

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 chain is it OK to stop and say, that's a good outcome to fund? 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. 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: 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 guardians 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 the World Dance Party includes 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 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 return to our world.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Vu Le is Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) in Seattle. His Blue Avocado column Point of Vu documents the fun of nonprofit work. Vu also publishes regularly on his own blog, Nonprofit with Balls. He can be reached at rainwalker at gmail dot com. Fun fact: He once freelanced as a writer of unicorn dialogs for a fantasy computer simulation game that teaches kids about the value of loyalty and friendship (true!)

Comments (9)

  • Anonymous

    Great article: Big mistake to allow your funders to determine your outcomes, or what you measure. Bring back the unicorns!

    Dec 17, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Ditto

    Dec 19, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Yes! Thank you! Did you see the article in the NY Times today talking about not being able to move the dial on poverty? Frustrating.

    Dec 18, 2013
  • Anonymous

    The outcome obsession of funders is typical of how the rich work on anything. They make it worse.

    Dec 18, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Great article! Brings a smile to my face as I'm working on these very issues with grants.

    Dec 19, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Well fine but what difference will bringing unicorns back make???

    Dec 31, 2013
  • Anonymous

    I now love you. That is all. Oh, and the unicorn lives on in all of us. :)

    Feb 25, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Great comments and it seems it is a universal problem .

    Feb 25, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I love that your funder's next logical question is probably, "so how many unicorns?". Great article.

    Mar 19, 2014

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