Why Measure Outcomes?
Outcomes measures are valuable management tools that can help programs improve client services and organizational effectiveness and efficiency. Some key ways outcomes help include:
- Framing mission and goals
- Assessing success in accomplishing mission and goals
- Allocating resources and developing strategies
- Staff performance and engagement
- Fundraising and “telling their story”
Framing Organizational Mission and Goals
In broad terms, the essential purposes of most legal services programs are to provide high-quality legal services to low-income people and equal access to justice, and to improve the quality of clients’ lives. This leads some programs to frame their mission and goals in terms of their activities and products (outputs)—e.g., high-quality legal assistance—while others frame their mission and goals in terms of the results (outcomes) of their work—e.g., providing equal access to justice—improve the quality of clients’ lives.
These approaches reflect different answers to two fundamental questions: “What are we trying to accomplish?" and "How will we know if we are succeeding?” We can think of these questions as "objectives” and “metrics.”
This is what output-focused missions and goals might sound like:
- “Provide high-quality legal representation to low-income people.”
- "Ensure that no individual or family in our community is deprived of access to professional legal assistance solely because of an inability to pay.”
- “Serve low-income people by providing civil legal aid and by promoting collaboration to find solutions to problems of poverty.”
The objectives of these mission statements are to provide legal assistance, and the (implicit) metrics are the type and volume of services.
In contrast, for outcomes-defined mission and goals, the objectives are achieving results for clients and the (implicit) metrics are specific benefits to clients or the client community. Here are three examples of outcomes-defined missions and goals:
- “Resolve the serious legal problems of low-income people, promote economic and family stability and reduce poverty through effective legal assistance.”
- “Ensure that state and federal laws affecting low-income people are enforced and reduce the systemic barriers to justice that low-income face."
- “Empower individuals, protect fundamental rights, strengthen communities, create opportunities, and achieve justice.”
Programs are increasingly defining their mission and goals in terms of outcomes rather than outputs because outcome-defined mission and goals more accurately articulate programs’ essential purposes and, as discussed below, it can enhance program operations and client services in a range of ways.
Assessing Success in Accomplishing Mission and Goals
Programs need outcome measures to effectively assess their success in achieving their mission and goals. Output measures such as cases closed data that show the type and volume of client services are essential evaluative tools. However, outcomes measures are needed to assess if a program is achieving results-oriented mission and goals—such as “resolving the serious legal problems of low-income people” or “promoting economic and family stability.” Further, outcome measures can enhance a program’s ability to assess the extent to which their work is aligned with their mission and goals. They improve a program’s ability to answer questions such as: "Will the client services we provide enable us to most effectively fulfill our mission and achieve our goals?" and "If not, what changes should we implement in our client services?"
Allocating Resources and Developing Strategies
By providing a program with a more complete understanding of the results and impact of its work, outcomes data can enable a program to more efficiently allocate its limited resources. For example, they improve a program’s ability to assess whether its allocation of resources among different substantive law areas or among different regions within the service area were most appropriate. Similarly, outcomes data enhance a program’s ability to assess the effectiveness of advocacy strategies and to develop the strategies that can provide the greatest benefits to the client community.
Staff Performance and Engagement
Many programs have found that the use of outcomes has significantly enhanced staff performance, engagement, and morale, even though staff were initially skeptical and at times resistant about their use. Some staff raised concerns that using outcomes would:
- Divert resources from client services to bureaucratic record keeping
- Drive the program to “cherry-pick” cases that were easy
- Have limited benefits
- Be used as an inappropriate staff evaluation tool
Programs have addressed these concerns by meaningfully involving staff in the development and use of outcomes measures.
Since advocates are committed to securing as much as possible for their clients, they want to identify the outcomes that best enable them to assess what they are accomplishing for clients and to devise strategies that will allow them to increase the benefits they provide clients. Also, systematic data showing the impact of advocates’ work can enhance staff performance and morale. One program director noted that this should hardly be surprising given the research that shows achievement and recognition are the two most important motivators for professional employees.
Fundraising and “Telling the Story”
Cases closed numbers and other outputs data can show the type and volume of legal services programs’ work, but they cannot show the value and importance of this work. Funders want to know what the impact their limited funding will have on the community. Outcomes data that show the results of programs’ client services, in combination with outputs data that show the volume and scope of these services, provide a far better picture of what programs do and the value of their work to the community. They clearly demonstrate that funding for legal services is a sound investment in the community.
Similarly, the media frequently seek information about service providers in their communities. However, their reaction to cases closed data and other outputs data is often, “So what?” and their response to anecdotes and personal stories that show the ways programs’ services help community members may be positive, "But that’s just one person.”
Again, the combination of types of data can be far more effective. For a program tackling domestic violence, this combination could include:
- Outputs data showing the number of domestic violence-related cases handled and the number of victims and their children helped in these cases
- Outcomes data showing the number of civil protection orders obtained and the amount of resources protected or secured for the victims
- Examples of how the program’s representation helped individual clients
- How Blue Ridge Legal Services in Virginia uses outcomes data to improve its client services and operational effectiveness and efficiency.
- How Cleveland Legal Aid Society uses outcomes data for these purposes.
- More general information about the ways outcomes data can help legal services providers improve their client services and operational effectiveness and efficiency.
- Resources about the usefulness of outcomes data for nonprofit organizations.