The Ripple Effect: Getting to Outcomes

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I am less than two weeks into my new position as Greenlights’ Consulting & Research Fellow and am excited to have the opportunity to write my first blog. I have long admired Greenlights’ work in supporting the Central Texas nonprofit community and am thrilled to be part of the Greenlights Team! As a Fellow, one of my roles will be to further develop Greenlights’ research initiative. Greenlights has already published several informative research briefs and is currently engaged in a project to assess how nonprofits evaluate their programs.

Although the full results of the Greenlights study won’t be available until later this year, one interesting finding is that while tracking output data (e.g. number of clients served) has become a common practice, only about half of organizations in our sample gather data on outcomes (specific changes in clients or program participants). While keeping track of outputs is important, if we truly want to understand the changes which are occurring as a result of our efforts, we have to focus on outcomes. 


If you don’t already have outcomes identified for your program or organization, a helpful place to start is to create a logic model. The logic model is a tool used to represent how your program does its work and the outcomes it hopes to achieve. It helps boil your program down to its essential parts and usually consists of defining inputs, activities, and outputs, along with identifying critical outcomes. You may already be somewhat familiar with logic models, but may find its lingo a bit fuzzy (trust me, it was for me too!). If so, consider this illustration from the Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox by Robert Penna:

Imagine a person throwing a rock into a pond and the subsequent ripples that are created on the surface of the pond. Each aspect of this image corresponds to a key logic model component:

  • Inputs: The person holding the rock represents a program’s human and material resources.
  • Activities: Throwing the rock corresponds to all of the activities and actions your program engages in.
  • Outputs: The splash as the rock hits the pond symbolizes what your program produces (meals served, referrals made, training sessions delivered) as a result of your program’s activities.
  • Outcomes:  Ripples created on the water’s surface are the changes that come about as a result of your program. The ripples closest to the rock represent short-term outcomes (e.g. changes in knowledge, skills, attitudes, awareness). The ever widening ripples represent medium and longer term outcomes (e.g. changes in behavior, practices, policies, and procedures).

For more information on outcomes and how to create your own logic model, check out the W.K. Kellogg Logic Model Development Guide or the University of Wisconsin’s free on-line course Enhancing Program Performance With Logic Models.

Once you have created your logic model and identified program outcomes, you will be ready to figure out how to measure your outcomes. But, I will save that discussion for another time!


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