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Crafting Unbeatable Outcome Statements – with a Twist: A Fill-In-the-Blanks Model

Not surprisingly, one of the stickiest issues for folks at every level of expertise in the grants world is how to develop strong, solid, funder-friendly outcome statements.

Good news! It's possible to break the mystery and mystique of outcome statements down to a simple, powerful step-by-step process that not only results in unbeatable measures, but actually gives you a head start on your evaluation plan.

Ready? Here we go . . .

Purpose? Outcome? Objective? Goal? Yikes!

How many thousands of hours do you suppose have been spent discussing and arguing about the definition of “purpose” or “outcomes” or “objectives” or “goals” or … (fill in your own word)?

What I know is that these terms are understood very differently by professionals in different fields – academia, health, government, and so on. Or, simply, from one nonprofit to another – and, certainly, from one grantmaking organization to another.

At GrantsMagic U we coach students that words are just labels and to hold those labels very lightly and focus instead on the meaning behind them. We sidestep the semantics by paring the “labels” down to just these two:

  • Purpose: The long-term direction you want your program or effort to move you toward, stated in broad community or societal terms. (I like to call this “the greater good.”)
  • Outcome: A specific change or impact on your target population or community that you are specifically organizing and investing resources to achieve – in other words, what you’re aiming to achieve as a direct result of your planned work. (You can think of this as your “success indicators” or even “finish line.”)

Why does this distinction matter? Because grantmakers are investors. And while grantmakers should be inspired by your purpose or “greater good,” their ROI – return on investment – comes from the actual difference your work makes in the community. In other words, your outcomes.

Our Working Example: “We Help People Learn to Read”

Before introducing our fill-in-the-blanks template, let’s look at an example. A nonprofit providing literacy services might state its purpose this way:

“Our purpose is to ensure that adults have the opportunity to learn to read and write, in order to achieve their full potential as individuals, as employees, as parents, and as members of the community at large.”

Inspiring? Yes, absolutely!  – but hardly something we want to hold ourselves solely accountable for or expect to ever fully achieve.

Outcomes, on the other hand, should be fully achievable through this one project, initiative, or effort alone. They may start out as brief statements of our intended changes, or what we call “success indicators” – as in, What will success look like for this program or intervention? For our literacy organization, let’s suppose we’re seeking funding for our one-on-one tutoring services. One success indicator might be, very simply:

“We want our participants to improve their reading skills.”

Now grant professionals worth our salt will recognize right away that this statement doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as an outcome measure. Why? Because it’s lacking the key characteristics necessary to give us something we can organize our resources toward, and hold ourselves accountable to. You know what I’m talking about – that old favorite planning acronym S-M-A-R-T.

At GrantsMagic U we teach the S-M-A-R-T model – with a twist. Literally, a twist – in the form of a “?” at the end.  Here’s how we do it:

  • S = Specific: You know exactly where the finish line is.
  • M = Measurable: There’s a way to capture information about how you’re doing.
  • A = Aggressive: You’re aiming to make a significant difference.
  • R = Reachable: It may be a stretch - but it’s doable.
  • T = Time-limited: And of course there’s a time-bucket for your work.

. . . so far nothing radically new, but hold on, here comes the twist:

  • ? = As measured by what?

The twist is the question mark – the “as measured by what.” When we build the answer to the question “As measured by what?” into our thinking as we’re developing our outcome statements, we’re doing two very important things.

  • Number one, we’re not just saying “Yup, it’s measurable.” We’re making sure, up front, that we have, or can get or develop, some workable tool or process or device for collecting the information to help us track our success.
  • And number two, we’re building our evaluation into the very structure of the plan, rather than – as so often seems to happen – kind of tacking it on at the end, almost as a necessary if unpleasant afterthought.

Asking and answering the question “As measured by what?” up front (rather than as an add-on) forces us to be clear and realistic in our thinking about outcomes – qualities that not only appeal to funders, but also lead to better-managed programs.

Muscling It Up: Our Fill-In-the-Blanks Outcome-Building Template

Remember our initial success indicator: “To help participants improve their reading skills”? How do we get from this 98-pound weakling to a powerhouse outcome statement that wins friends and influences funders?

Time to introduce GrantsMagic U’s outcome-building-with-a-twist fill-in-the-blanks template.

(Download your own fillable template here.)

Starting with your skinny little success indicator, think through each of the following questions about your vision of the change you intend to create. Here’s what that could look like with our literacy example:

  • Time frame: By what date? Within what time period? [After six months]
  • Intervention: What is the work or service you’re applying to create the intended change? [one-on-one tutoring]
  • What portion of what target group: [75% of the adult learners served by this project]
  • Direction of change: Is something going up or down, getting larger or smaller? [will improve]
  • Area of impact: What is going up or down, getting larger or smaller? [their reading skills]
  • Degree of impact: [by two grade levels]
  • As measured by what indicators: [as measured by their scores]
  • Using what instrument: [on the Lumbard Literacy Evaluation Scale]
  • Administered when: [administered at the beginning and end of the six-month period.]

Put all the fill-ins together, and here’s what you get:

“After six months of one-on-one tutoring, 75% of the adult learners served by this project will improve their reading skills by two grade levels, as measured by their scores on the Lumbard Literacy Evaluation Scale administered at the beginning and end of the six-month period.”

Voila! – A foolproof outcome statement that will inspire confidence in your funders every time.

Another Example

Let’s take another example, this time from the arts community.

Suppose you want to increase ticket sales for your small community theater, and are seeking a grant for a marketing campaign to help build your audience base.

So our starting point might look like this:

“We want to increase the number of first-time ticket buyers.”

Let’s muscle this 98-pound weakling up with the fill-in-the-blanks formula:

  • Time frame: Within the first 12 months . . .
  • Intervention: . . . of our new-audience recruitment program . . . 
  • Area of impact: . . . the average number of first-time ticket buyers per performance . . . 
  • Direction of change: . . . will increase . . . 
  • Degree of impact: . . . by at least 50% . . . 
  • As measured by what indicators: . . . as measured by responses . . . 
  • Using what instrument: . . . to an online survey . . . 
  • Administered when: . . . administered at the time tickets are purchased. 

Again, put all the fill-in-the-blanks together and you come up with:

"Within the first 12 months of our new audience-recruitment program, the average number of first-time ticket buyers per performance will increase by at least 50%, as measured by responses to an online survey administered at the time tickets are purchased."

You’ll notice in this example that we juggled the formula just a bit – dropping one fill-in-the-blank and moving another one around to suit the situation. What’s left are the bare essentials – the lean, muscular key elements that form the framework for an unbeatable outcome statement.

Happy grantseeking, my friends!


If you enjoyed this post, please share! If you love the SMART-with-a-? Outcomes fill-in-the-blanks template, check out GrantsMagic U’s all-in-one collection of almost 100 grants tools, The Ultimate Grants Toolkit: Essential Worksheets, Blueprints, and Step-By-Step Planning Guides to Help You Build Great Grant-Funded Projects! For more great grants tips and training from GrantsMagic U, please visit us at 

This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.

About the Author

Over her 25+ year career in the nonprofit world, Maryn has been an on-staff program developer and grant writer; an independent grants consultant; a grants project manager; a grants trainer; a grants reviewer, author, speaker, mentor and coach; and – yes – for the past 16 years, even a grantmaker. Grants Magic U, launched in fall 2015, is the “virtual academy” she created to make her extensive portfolio of practical and inspiring trainings on successful grantsmanship available (and affordable!) for anyone, anytime, anywhere.

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