Why it’s so hard to move from an outputs to outcomes

Posted on 23 Jun 2021

By Joshua Presser, special projects director, SmartyGrants

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Teena Blewitt says the number of warm penguins is a more accurate indicator of success than the number of jumpers knitted. Picture: Penguin Foundation

Grantmakers everywhere are making the switch from an outputs to an outcomes focus, but delegates at the 2021 Grantmaking Intelligence Conference have been told it’s easier said than done. At the conference, Teena Blewitt, group manager of the Communities Group at the federal Department of Social Services, shared valuable insights for grantmakers on making the transition, saying that collaboration, culture, capability and grants administration practices are all part of making a successful shift.

Penguins slide Teena V2

What’s the difference between outputs and outcomes?

To illustrate the difference between outcomes and outputs, and the importance of an outcomes focus, Ms Blewitt told conference delegates a story about penguins.

The penguins had fallen victim to an oil spill and had lost the natural oils from their feathers, so they were unable to stay warm. The solution was to have volunteers knit them tiny penguin-sized jumpers.

Yarn and volunteer labour (inputs) were used to knit little penguin jumpers (the activity). Success in this example was defined not by the number of jumpers knitted (the outputs), but rather by the degree to which the desired outcome (warm penguins) was achieved.

“…Did the jumpers actually get to the penguins?” Ms Blewitt asked. “Were the jumpers the right size, or did they just restrict the penguins’ movements? Did the knitters use the right type of yarn that actually didn't irritate the penguins or cause an allergic reaction if most of the penguins recover, regrow their natural oils and return to the ocean?

“…The key takeaway from this penguin story is that we can measure as many outputs as we'd like but if we haven't defined the outcomes we want to achieve and measured the degree to which we've achieved them, then we don't know whether our money has been effective or whether it has been wasted, or if our intervention was worthwhile to start with…. the outcome is the main game”.

Addressing the barriers to outcomes-driven grants management

Ms Blewitt outlined how the Department of Social Services has been exploring ways to overcome barriers to outcomes-driven grants programs. She said the department had undertaken extensive research and consultation with the community service sector, academics, and all levels of government.

Through these consultations, the department explored the “pain points” experienced by the grantmaker (the department) and its funded service providers (grantees) and developed “pathways to progress” to overcome barriers.

Pathways to progress for grantmakers

  • A focus on collaboration A shift towards outcomes cannot be undertaken by grantmakers unilaterally. It must be done in partnership with grantees. Ms Blewitt said this requires a “cultural shift towards a collaborative model of grants administration”. This involves an emphasis on co-design and a shift towards a co-governance model of grants administration. She emphasised the importance of trust in effective collaboration with grantees, saying, “…trust is absolutely fundamental, and I think partnering with the sector in terms of doing grants which are outcomes focused is at the core of that.”
  • Build outcomes capability and culture Ms Blewitt said grantmakers need to look within their organisations, building an outcomes-oriented culture and investing in their capability to support change. This included “getting staff internally to think about design thinking and evidence-based practice”.

Pathways to progress for grantees

  • Culture of collaboration Like grantmakers, grantees also need to build a culture of collaboration within their organisations.
  • Stability of funding This requires “providers actually telling us they need certainty of funding,” Ms Blewitt said. “It's very difficult for them to partner in this relationship if we're actually only providing funding for three years. They're looking for funding for five years or even potentially longer.”
  • Grant administration to support grantee outcomes orientation
    • “Simple, proportional reporting processes”
    • “Flexible funding and reporting arrangements to create space for organisational agility”
  • Outcomes capability and culture Ms Blewitt said grantees, like grantmakers, need to be committed to “outcomes driven, evidence based practice”, and noted that smaller grantees might require support to build their capacity.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen

While her department is on the road to change, Ms Blewitt said that like any large cultural shift, it will take time. “…While the department has begun implementing these principles, it's actually a bold step. We've got to recognise it’s a difficult process to embark on the cultural change required to shift from an output to an outcomes focus… really tricky to do that overnight as you can imagine, so I think it's going to take us some time.”

Teena Blewitt
Ms Blewitt says that grantmakers must do the policy thinking before designing their grants programs.

Developing a theory of change

According to Ms Blewitt, for grants programs to be evidence based, it’s important that grantmakers do the policy thinking before jumping in and designing their grants programs. This includes developing a theory of change. Ms Blewitt defined a theory of change as “a description or an illustration of why a grant program is expected to work. It is focused on mapping out or filling in what's described as the missing middle between the activities we undertake in a grant program and the outcome we expect to achieve.”

She outlined three basic steps in developing a theory of change:

1. Understand the problem you’re trying to solve

“It's natural to... think that we know about what the problem is and to want to jump straight to developing solutions. I know that in the public service we often do that. We're all very busy and… sometimes it's very easy to think that we know the solutions rather than involving people with lived experience and others and starting from the beginning… We need to learn to take the time to discover what the true problem is and make sure we know what is really happening and why.”

2. Define your desired outcomes

“It's important that we're clear on both the short-, medium- and long-term outcomes we're trying to achieve before we can start with designing a grant opportunity… make sure that providers are collecting and reporting the right data that would allow us to measure success.”

3. Defining policy solutions

“…This involves asking what steps are needed to bring about the desired change and what are the levers we can use. We need to remember that our interventions occur in complex social services systems involving policies, programs, and payments from different agencies across different governments… The individuals we're designing our programs for will likely interact with multiple levels of governments and non-government services… We need to understand this reveals… opportunity or even the necessity to collaborate to achieve desired outcomes.”

This article is based on a presentation by Teena Blewitt PSM at the 2021 SmartyGrants Grantmaking Intelligence Conference. At the time of the presentation, Ms Blewitt was the group manager of the Communities Group in the federal Department of Social Services, working in partnership with government and non-government organisations to improve the wellbeing of individuals and communities through the delivery of policies, programs and services. In May 2021, she moved to a new role at the federal Department of Health to support the critical work associated with the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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