As most of you know, I currently work full time as a college English professor. Before that, however, I spent a year as a full time grant writer for an educational nonprofit organization. The grant writing world is quite different from academia: it’s full of mysterious concepts like targets, milestones, and outcomes.
To be an effective grant writer, I had to learn a lot about outcomes measurement. Although I no longer write grants full time, I still dabble in fundraising and development on a freelance basis. Today, in fact, I was reviewing a grant draft for a college advancement office, and much of my feedback concerned the proposed project’s outcomes. I started to think about outcomes measurement in general, and it struck me that all writers could benefit from adopting an outcomes-based perspective from time to time.
Outcomes measurement is a widely used, and often misunderstood, methodology in nonprofit development. Its basic premise is simple: the most important criterion to use in determining a program’s effectiveness is whether (and how) people’s lives were changed as a result of that program. Funders want to know how their money will help people. Funders do not want to know what their money will allow an agency to do.
Many funding requests, however, focus on what the agency or organization will do with the funder’s money. “Funding from X Foundation will allow us to provide job training workshops three days a week…” This program goal (providing workshops) is not focused on the outcome.
To revise the above program goal, this grant writer would need to ask him- or herself what good will happen as a result of the agency’s efforts. In this case, people would gain the skills they need to enter the workforce in certain fields. So far, so good.
But outcomes measurement doesn’t stop there. This writer has identified the way lives will be changed as a result of this program – the outcome. But this outcome must be measurable: the funders must see concrete evidence that the program is achieving the outcome. The second step of outcomes measurement is creating measurable goals that chart the outcomes’ progress in objective terms.
For the job training program, the goals could be: 80% of workshop participants learn new job skills, and 70% of workshop participants get jobs within six months. The agency can keep track of participants’ progress toward these goals. The agency must quantify the program’s positive effect.
The basic outcomes measurement principles I’ve outlined here could help a writer – or anyone – establish satisfying, concrete goals. Outcomes measurement could also help writers in particular streamline their writing, removing tangents and unneeded information. It works because outcomes measurement is not focused on you, the writer. Rather, it’s focused on the purpose of your writing: the good it is designed to do in the universe.
Writing is hard work, and it’s easy (and understandable) for writers to get caught up in the work they put into writing. But outcomes measurement would help writers to focus not on the good work you’re doing, but on the life-changing, positive effect your work could have on readers.
So next time you’re not sure you’re on the right track with a draft, play grant-writer-for-a-day and ask yourself:
- How am I trying to change the lives of my readers: their worldviews, their assumptions, their emotions, their knowledge?
- What steps do I need to take to ensure that my readers’s lives are changed?
- How will I know when I have succeeded?
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