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Celebration of Service

Measuring impact

Christian Schoen helps not-for-profit better define what it means to succeed

In the funding landscape of charities that depend on donations and grants to deliver their services, the perceptual (and real) difference between a result and an outcome can mean big money.

Delivering more than one-thousand meals everyday is impressive—it’s an admirable result. The fact that some of those meals save lives is an even more impressive outcome, and enhances a compelling case to provide continued or greater funding.

Despite having no experience in advising a not-for-profit on outcomes-based thinking, Christian Schoen, a business consultant at IBM, used a resource from IBM’s library of volunteer materials to help the Council on Aging (CoA) serving St. Clair County, Michigan, US, develop a deeper view of the impact their services have on the community.

“I wanted to help CoA—they operate where I grew up. I went to IBM’s On Demand Community and I put together of list of possible solutions I could bring to them,” says Christian, referring to IBM’s global community that combines the skills of over 200,000 IBM employee and retiree volunteers with the power of access to IBM technology and training. “There was a lot in On Demand Community, and CoA’s executive director picked an activity called ‘Help not-for-profits measure their impact.’”

Decades of success, and willing to learn more

Funders of all types are increasingly looking for charities to describe their impact in terms of what happens when their mission is successful, not just in terms of what they do—going beyond counting hours of service, numbers of clients, or tallies of activities provided.

It takes open-minded thinking and a willingness to question assumptions about the good an organization is doing to uncover its true outcomes. “CoA was candid with me and said they had been to three or four seminars on outcomes and usually left scratching their heads,” says Christian. “To their credit, they recognized the importance of really examining their impact, and asked me to facilitate a session for them.”

As a nearly 45-year old organization, CoA is an indispensible resource to many in St. Clair County, and is dedicated to promoting and safeguarding the independence and well-being of senior citizens in its area. Yet even after decades of service, the organization realized they might have a story with even greater impact.

Investment in the future

In what Christian called a “mini consulting engagement,” he and the CoA team spent two days discussing, analyzing and documenting where the organization could measure its outcomes.

Christian relied on his business skills and admitted to having little familiarity with the topic of outcomes. “I really knew nothing about it, but was amazed how thorough the ODC presentations are. The ease of use of the materials makes a novice look like a pro,” he says and adds, “Now I can tell you all about measuring outcomes and personally see value in this as a consultant.”

After examining their many programs, CoA decided to describe their meal preparation and delivery service in terms of outcomes such as lives saved, nutritional health, and home stays maintained, to name a few under consideration.

With Christian’s support, CoA was awarded an IBM Community Grant to continue identifying and solidifying an approach that emphasizes outcomes. “I view this as an investment in their future that goes beyond the cash grant,” says Christian. “We helped them develop insight that is uniquely their own and will give them the ability to generate more awareness and revenue. CoA’s case is compelling, and now it will be even more powerful.”

A different kind of great feeling

Christian is ready to do more as a volunteer after the session with CoA. “I thought my service work for the year was done after CoA, but now I’m helping two other not-for-profits. I could easily see helping more by the end of the year.”

Having “off-the-shelf” resources from IBM’s On Demand Community are often cited by first time volunteers as reducing the amount of time needed to prepare, along with reducing the anxiety of doing something new.

“That I may have been effective the first time out of the gate says the materials are very good, though the skills (IBM volunteers) bring to the table are equally important,” says Christian.

“In our professional lives you can feel good about helping a business improve efficiency or achieve cost savings. But when you help an organization determine that they are saving lives? Well, I guess that’s a different kind of great feeling,” Christian says.

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.