Strategic planning can bring up a lot of big picture questions. What is our vision for the future? What are our strategic goals? Should we grow and expand our staff? How can we raise more money?
For nonprofit organizations, answers to questions like these actually depend up the answer to the ultimate question—the impact question: What difference are we trying to make?
At the risk of oversimplifying, the answer to most (all?) organizational questions comes down to how you answer the impact question. Unfortunately, I often find people mistaking their outcomes for their impact and conflating the two is dangerous.
Confusing Outcomes for Impact
That’s because an organization can have lots of outcomes, and still not make an impact towards its mission. Consider the case of land trusts that are embracing community conservation efforts, adding new projects and programs to build strong connections to the communities they serve.
Community conservation efforts run the gamut. Some examples I’ve observed recently include:
- Preserving farmland
- Protecting streams corridors and fish habitat
- Managing forested lands
- Developing recreational trails
- Providing educational programs for children
All of these efforts have specific, measurable outcomes. But that don’t necessarily equal impact. So here are two key questions I use to gauge if outcomes are leading to impact.
Question 1: What Does It All Add Up To?
Let’s say a land trust preserves 120 acres of prime farmland as part of its community conservation work. This keeps that land in production, providing local food for generations to come. That’s a great outcome for the land owner, the farmer, and all the community members who can enjoy that local food now and in the future. No argument here.
But if the difference that land trust is trying to make is to build and maintain a local agricultural economy, then those 120 acres don’t equal impact. Why? Because making a significant difference towards that mission of strengthening the local agricultural economy requires more than only preserving working lands.
Organizations make an impact by realizing a multitude of related outcomes. So our hypothetical land trust needs land preservation outcomes AND policy change outcomes AND community education outcomes to add up to a vibrant local agriculture economy (impact). It could preserve 12,000 acres of working land; but if those were its only outcomes, it would not achieve impact.
So always ask: “What does it all add up to?” to see if you are neglecting some of the outcomes you need in order to achieve impact.
Question 2: Is it Mission-Critical?
Nonprofits exist to solve problems, meet needs, or serve the public good. You can run a lot of great programs and reach lots of people. But what impact must you have? What difference does your mission require you to make in the world? Is what you’re doing mission-critical?
How do you know if you’re focused on what’s mission-critical? Look at your data. For example, if an organization in the business of prescription drug abuse prevention looks at community health data and learns that teens are being hospitalized or dying because of overdoses, the impact it must have is clear. The mission-critical outcomes are those that significantly contribute to decreasing the rate of teen overdoses. And any that don’t directly contribute to the impact that organization must have are not.
So always ask, “Is it mission-critical?” to gauge whether an outcome is really contributing towards impact.
TLDR: An organization’s outcomes and its impact are different things. Achieving impact requires realizing a lot of related outcomes – so ask, “What does it all add up to?” to make sure you’re not missing anything. And some outcomes are more important towards impact than others, so ask, “What is mission-critical?” to clarify your priorities. Remember, equating the two is dangerous and can lead to focusing too much on outcomes and too little on impact.
Image by Kim André Silkeb