Measuring Outcomes

Measuring outcomes is a cornerstone of grantmaking from Madison Community Foundation. Each grant applicant is asked to identify up to three outcomes and to specify the measurable indicators that will be used to determine whether the outcomes have been achieved, including a target for each indicator. Organizations that are awarded grants will also be required to report on outcomes at the conclusion of the project as part of the Grant Evaluation Report [PDF].

Some organizations have a lot of experience with outcomes. But for others, measuring outcomes is relatively new—and can feel intimidating. While it takes some thought and planning, designing and measuring outcomes doesn’t have to be rocket science. Take some time to read through our explanations and suggestions below to get an overview of the process.

If after reading through this information and writing outcomes for your project, you’d like some feedback or guidance, we’re happy to help as time permits. Contact us with your questions or with a draft of your outcomes.

What is an Outcome?

Outcomes demonstrate how your program brings about changes in participants. They are benefits that individuals or groups receive after participating in your activities. They show higher level impact.

Sometimes it’s easier to think in terms of what outcomes are not. Outcomes are not materials that go into a program. Those are inputs and might include staff time, volunteer hours, and supplies. Outcomes are also not the volume of work accomplished or produced. Those are outputs and could include number of classes taught, pounds of food distributed or number of people who completed a counseling program. Here are some examples:







Art in the Park sculpture display

Material for sculptures, hours creating and installing art

# of sculptures placed in the park

Increase in community pride and sense of ownership


Tutoring for low income youth


Volunteer hours, books, desks

# of participating kids

Students improve academic performance

Prairie restoration program

Volunteer hours, seeds, purchased native plans, tools

# of acres of prairie restored

Increased natural beauty, increased sense of open space and relaxation for visitors

Rides for seniors (to doctor appointments, grocery stores and social events) program

Volunteer driver hours, vehicles

# of rides given, # of seniors receiving rides

Seniors experience better physical and emotional health

Parenting skills classes

Staff hours, room, distributed handouts

# of classes, # of parents participating

Parents feel more confident and provide better care for their children


Why Outcomes Matter

Why should you measure outcomes? Here are two of the most important reasons:

1) Funders expect measurable outcomes. Madison Community Foundation is one of many grantmaking organizations that require nonprofits to design and measure outcomes as part of the grant process. Funders are looking for accountability in where their financial support goes. They want to make sure your program delivers on what it says it’s going to do.

2) Measuring outcomes helps your organization stay on track and focus on what really matters—bringing about positive change. By measuring outcomes, you can more clearly see if the work you are doing is accomplishing the goals you intend it to accomplish. If you find out it’s not, you can make changes to your program. This helps make your programs as effective as possible.

Designing and Measuring Outcomes

So now that you understand what outcomes are and why they’re important, it’s time to figure out how to create some for your program and how to measure them. Remember that measuring outcomes will require resources such as staff time. Be sure to plan for that. Madison Community Foundation allows you to include evaluation expenses in your grant budget.

Also as you are designing outcomes, keep in mind that there are different levels of outcomes: initial, intermediate and long-term. Some changes in participants could take place right away, while others may require a more significant amount of time to achieve. As a short-term funder, MCF acknowledges that the outcomes you propose for our grants are likely to be initial or intermediate in nature. Long-term outcomes will generally be beyond the scope of evaluation for a MCF grant.

Here are some simple steps for designing measurable outcomes for your grant project:

1. Decide which outcomes are important. Think about what your goals are with your program. What changes do you hope to bring about in your target population? (Remember, outcomes aren’t a number of people you want to serve. They’re changes in behavior of some type.)

2. Figure out how you will know if you achieved your outcomes. In other words, set outcomes indicators. Outcome indicators are specific items of information (data) that track a project’s success. They describe observable, measurable characteristics or changes that represent achievement of an outcome. In your grant, you should also include target indicators—numbers and/or percentages to show what change threshold you aim to achieve with the project during the grant period.

Using the same examples as in the table above, here are some sample indicators and targets.










Art in the Park sculpture display

Increase in community pride and sense of ownership


# of new graffiti paintings, # of visitors to park

50% reduction in new graffiti, 20% increase in visitors

Tutoring for low income youth

Students improve academic performance

# of students reading at grade level after the program compared to before

60% more students will read at grade level after completing the program

Prairie restoration program

Increased natural beauty, increased sense of open space and relaxation for visitors

# of people who report feeling more relaxed after visiting park

100 visitors in one-month period report feeling more relaxed after visiting park

Rides for seniors programs

Seniors experience better physical and emotional health

# of seniors who report higher levels of physically and emotionally well-being after being in the program

100 more seniors report higher levels of physical and emotional well-being after receiving rides for 3 months

Parenting skills classes

Parents feel more confident and provide better care for their children

# of parents who report feeling more confident and applying new skills after the program

50% more parents report feeling more confident and applying new skills after the program


3. Design a measurement system or way to track your indicators. Figure out how you will collect the data described in your indicators. This might mean coming up with a measurement system yourself such as creating a survey that you give at the start and conclusion of the program. Indicators like this could work in the parenting skills example above.

Finding a way to track your indicators might also mean taking advantage of data that is already being gathered. In the tutoring example above, you could ask participants to share results of standardized tests before and after the program. 

You must complete these first three steps in order to complete your MCF grant application. A well-designed measurable outcome in a MCF grant proposal will outline proposed outcomes as well as specify measurable indicators you will use to determine whether each outcome has been achieved, including a target for each indicator. If appropriate, an outcome could have more than one indicator with a target. A successful grant will also describe how you will collect the needed data. 

If your grant is awarded and your program is funded, you must then complete the evaluation process. Track your data as indicated in your grant application and report on your results. Learn from what went well—and what didn’t—so that next time your program can meet the participants’ needs even better.

More Help:

We’ve provided an overview here. If you’d like to dive deeper, there are some great online resources to help you do that:

*The Basic Guide to Outcomes-Based Evaluation for Nonprofit Organizations with Very Limited Resources, by Carter McNamara.

*Strengthening Nonprofits: A Capacity Builder’s Resources Library. Measuring Outcomes [PDF]

*Measuring Program Outcomes: A Practical Approach by United Way of America [PDF]