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Oct 13, 2017

Measuring Outcomes in Practice

October 13, 2017

Fostering an enabling environment for measurement in Canada

There is growing recognition that the social and economic challenges affecting individuals and communities are highly interconnected. Measuring Outcomes in Practice, a new report from Mowat NFP’s Enabling Environment series, argues that to address the root causes of these challenges in a systematic way, the charitable sector must shift from measuring outputs to measuring outcomes.

The paper examines current barriers to measuring outcomes, highlights key challenges, and explains why measuring outcomes is so difficult to do in the sector. It explores what is needed to create an enabling environment for Canada’s charitable and nonprofit sector to participate more readily in measurement activities. It provides actionable recommendations for the sector, governments, and other funders to work together to strengthen the evidence ecosystem in Canada and ensure their collective efforts are making a difference in the lives of the people and the communities they serve.


Charitable and nonprofit organizations are increasingly applying a systems-lens1 to the concept of impact, recognizing that the social and environmental issues they work to address are highly interconnected. There is greater recognition that, in the pursuit of long-term social change, one must address the root causes of social issues.2 A systems-lens encourages organizations to reflect on their contribution as part of a collective effort.

Measuring to outcomes supports this shift by changing the frame: focusing on how a program or service contributes to a better quality of life for Canadians, rather than what the program or service delivers. Charities, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and a growing number of social enterprises are invested in facilitating this transition, particularly as governments face greater scrutiny about how funds are spent, what outcomes are achieved with those funds and how evidence of “what works” can drive the policymaking process.

Yet, the shift from outputs to outcomes remains one of the most significant challenges in the sector. Why is measuring to outcomes so hard to do in practice? How can the sector, government, and other funders/investors work better together to make sure that our collective efforts are in fact making a difference to the quality of life for people at home and abroad? How can we ensure that, in today’s tight budgetary environment, we are allocating resources effectively?

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The time is ripe for change. Provincial governments, such as the Government of Ontario, are currently exploring common approaches to measurement.3 Employment and Social Development Canada recently convened a Co-Creation Steering Group to develop a National Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy.

Their objective is to identify approaches that address the most difficult problems in communities in order to improve the wellbeing of Canadians.4 This strategy will offer the platform for charitable and nonprofit organizations to collaborate and align priorities on outcomes measurement in Canada.

This paper explores current barriers to measuring outcomes and what is needed to create an enabling environment5 for Canada’s charitable and nonprofit sector to participate more readily in outcomes measurement activities. Specifically, this paper will:

  1. Describe the current state of outcomes measurement in Canada;
  2. Outline the barriers to building outcomes measurement capacity in the charitable sector;
  3. Explore emerging trends in outcomes measurement; and
  4. Identify recommendations for governments, funders and the social sector to create a more enabling environment for outcomes measurement.
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Lisa Lalande
Joanne Cave


Duncan Farthing-Nichol

Release Date

October 13, 2017



Mowat Research

No. 157

This research series from Mowat NFP explores different dimensions of an enabling environment in the relationship between the charitable and non-profit sector and government. The series is intended to help the federal government and the charitable and NFP sector develop a modern federal policy framework that enables the sector and strengthens its ability to improve the quality of life of Canadians and people around the world.
To the Enabling Environment page

Related Reading

  1. Systems change is a process designed to change the pathways (programs and services) and structures (such as operating procedures, culture, funding and resources, policies, laws and regulations) that cause a system to act in a certain way. []
  2. Abercrombie, R., Harries, E., and Wharton, R. (2015). Systems Change – A Guide To What It Is And How to Do It. London, UK: New Philanthropy Capital. []
  3. Government of Ontario (2017). Amplifying the Impact of Ontario’s Social Enterprise Community: An Action Plan Towards a Common Approach to Impact Measurement. Available at: []
  4. Government of Canada. []
  5. We define an enabling environment as one where the government safeguards the public interest, supports the sustainability of charities and nonprofits and optimizes the policy landscape for innovation and experimentation. Lalande, L. and Cave, J. (2017). “Charting A Path Forward: Strengthening and Enabling the Charitable Sector in Canada.” Toronto: Mowat Centre. []