While the notion of outcomes seems to be here to stay (and the jargon of outcomes is certainly everywhere), what is oddly missing in our sector is much evidence of the practice of outcomes. Although individual promising examples certainly exist, for the most part the social sector is talking about outcomes much more than it is actually doing much with outcomes, and much of the conversation centers on three questions:
- What is the "value" of outcomes?
- What do outcomes tell us; why are they (or why should they be) important?
- Should they be applied to everyone in the sector?
To get to an answer, perhaps the whole thing ought to be posed in a different way: How valid is the "knowledge" upon which individual and organizational giving decisions are traditionally and largely based?
This is an especially important question for donors, because the decisions they make very often determine which efforts will be implemented, and which will survive. Every day, in countless boardrooms, meeting rooms, and living rooms across the county, organizations and individuals make the decision to invest in the work of a given nonprofit. Sometimes they have at least some reliable information upon which to base this decision; very often they have little. So how are these decisions being made?
If the traditional way the sector has been arriving at these decisions for well over fifty years is valid, then the sector really has no need of outcomes. But if outcomes truly do hold the key to making these decisions in a rational, objective way, then virtually all the other considerations we have been using must be wrong—or at least inadequate. A contemporary and accessible example we might consider in thinking about this issue (and moreover one with strong parallels to the situation in the social sector) can be found in, of all places, professional baseball.
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