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For a number of years now the buzz in the nonprofit world has been about outcome-based evaluations. This, simply stated, is an exercise in measuring how well an organization is accomplishing its goals and objectives. The idea sounds great in theory, but how do you put it into practice? And can a tool straight out of an MBA curriculum be “borrowed and baptized” by clergy and religious leaders trying to gauge the effectiveness of faith-based organizations?

All of the focus on results is explained by a growing interest among private donors to measure the effectiveness of nonprofits. That’s why Acton’s Center for Effective Compassion is developing an outcome-based evaluation for its Samaritan Awards program. Our main objective is to help people of faith be more effective in carrying out the work of the Kingdom. You can’t have the great commission without great compassion.

The work of the church is fundamentally different from the work of business, but being different does not mean incompatible. Broadly speaking, business has concrete ways to evaluate the growth and sustainability in the marketplace by being accountable to their customers through product prices, and to their shareholders through stock prices. In the economic way of thinking, prices create accountability and a measurable outcome.

Is it possible, though, to evaluate outcomes of a faith-based organization, which by their nature deal with spiritual and human variables such as healing addictions, teaching parenting skills, or training the conscience toward a biblical worldview?

Instead of applying a standard evaluation checklist to a faith-based organization, evaluation should provide a richness of information about personal change and long-term program impact. Success is then measured in an appropriate context with an appropriate time frame. Effectiveness is thus measured by the creation of relationships that bring individuals from oppression to freedom, degeneracy to improvement, and, sometimes, from moral confusion and weakness to religious commitment.

A further question then arises: Is using an outcome-based evaluation tool really using a secular tool to measure spiritual growth?

In Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan we see that the Samaritan was concerned with outcomes. He not only crossed religious, racial, and political lines to claim that his avowed national enemy, a “half-breed” (2 Kings 17:24) was his neighbor. We see that the Samaritan was concerned with a contextual effective compassion: human relationships understood in their social setting. Though he was not a lifelong friend, the Samaritan was concerned with the long-term outcome of his newfound neighbor.

At the end of the story, the Samaritan tells the innkeeper to care for the wounded neighbor and on his return he would pay the debt for his care (Luke 10:35). Furthermore, Jesus asks the listening crowd, who is my neighbor? And he commands us to do like the Samaritan (Luke 10:36-37). This notion of “my neighbor" as anyone in need of compassion crosses all boundaries. If we are to reach out and bring those on the margins of society back into community, then it is fair to ask how well we are accomplishing our goals. Instead of looking for a price or some sort of economic indicator, a discussion of outcome-based evaluation for a faith-based charity should focus on relationships, long-term impact, and stewardship.

Several studies have acknowledged the importance of these factors in both secular and faith-based nonprofits: “What makes a Solution? Lessons and Findings from Solutions for America, published by The Pew Partnership for Civic Change, and the Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal (SBCR): Background, Assessment of Evaluability, and Recommendations, by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and the Association for the Study and Development of Community.

In the Pew study, making connections among various citizens, individuals and groups, public and private stakeholders, and resources and needs were the foundational and essential elements for change (p. 19). Likewise, the SBCR study shows that “mutual enhancing relationships” are the cornerstone of their renewal (p. 4). This notion of relationship is nebulous and difficult to quantify, yet it is the greatest single factor in moving a person toward assuming responsibility. It is nebulous because it does not center on a hard and fast “market price.” Instead such relationships are measured by context and the passage of time.

Many organizations manifest a long-term commitment to individuals and to the communities they serve. One organization may be engaged in an evening meal program, another may be involved in truancy, and yet another dedicated to mental health counseling. Any of these programs could be measured according to the strength of their relationships, their long-term impact in their community, and the stewardship of their funds, time and resources.

A measurement exercise for evaluating outcomes is not simply a tool of business schools. It can also be an aid to organizations striving to live up to the examples of compassion offered by the Gospel.

Rev. Jamé Bolds is a programs associate with Acton Institute's Center for Effective Compassion and the Center for Entrepreneurial Stewardship. He is a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God.