Define Success

For this step you will need:


Your journey to social change begins with understanding the problem you want to solve and its causes, and understanding the situation and needs of the intended beneficiaries of your program.

Now, you’re at your first decision point: deciding what success would look like—this is your destination. As baseball legend Yogi Berra reportedly said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.” We’re pretty sure that you don’t want your program to end up someplace else.

So it’s time to consider what a successful solution would look like.

Defining Success

You are building the foundation for a theory of change that charts a path to your program’s or policy’s ultimate outcome. What is the good outcome you want its beneficiaries to experience?

Developing Your Outcome

Here are some tips to help you develop or refine an ultimate outcome.

  1. » Consult beneficiaries about what outcome they desire 
    Your work is driven by the hope that your ultimate outcome will lead to a better situation for those experiencing the problem. Start with the presumption that they know what’s best for them.
  2. » Choose a single outcome 
    You may have many outcomes in mind, but focus on the single, distinct ultimate outcome that stands out as the most important and meaningful, and that you will hold yourself accountable for achieving. This is what will be success for you and your organization.
  3. » Specify the target population of your work
    Identify the program’s intended beneficiaries—for example, homeless veterans with PTSD or families in danger of eviction.
  4. » Keep it concise 
    Aim to identify the outcome and the target population in one or at most two sentences.
  5. » Make it clear
    The ultimate outcome should be clear enough that an independent person—someone outside your organization—could assess whether you achieved it or not.
  6. » Don’t be obsessed with metrics 
    As long as the outcome is clear and discernible by an independent person, don’t try to specify the timeframe or particular metrics you will use to assess whether you achieved it. If the outcome is worth achieving, you’ll find a way to measure it later. Don’t specify targets, such as how much improvement you hope to achieve for how many people in what period of time. That will come even later. Rather, describe the nature of improvements in terms of quality (better), quantity (more, less), or differences from the way things are now.
  7. » Don’t (yet) worry about how you’ll achieve the outcome
    For right now, focus on the final destination or end result of your work. Later, when you design a theory of change, you will map the path to your destination, and all the intermediate stops on the way.

Jordan's Example

Let’s check in with Jordan and see how she articulates the ultimate outcome of her diabetes program.

Lessons in Change

Now that we’ve reviewed what an ultimate outcome is, let’s look at what it is not.

Not an Ideal World

An ultimate outcome is not a description of the ideal world if the problem were completely solved—unless you believe that your strategy will solve it completely. Nor is it the lasting social change you hope your work will lead to beyond the scope of your program. Let’s call that an “aspirational outcome.”

It is motivating for social entrepreneurs to have wide-ranging aspirations for their work. But don’t confuse these with the more immediate and realistic outcomes that you’ll hold yourself accountable for.

For example, your motivation for developing and implementing a teen pregnancy prevention or a drug addiction recovery program may be to enable its beneficiaries to lead productive and satisfying lives. But the ultimate outcomes of these programs is much more immediate: to reduce teen pregnancies or drug addiction within the target population.

Not a Vision Statement

An ultimate outcome is not a vision or mission statement or a marketing slogan. There’s nothing wrong with describing your organization’s aspirations in catchy phrases that you can use to motivate your staff, board, funders, and other key actors. But the ultimate outcome for a program is much more specific. It is something specific that your organization will hold itself accountable for.


Before moving on, be sure to:

Don’t worry yet about how you’ll achieve the outcome. You’ll build a theory of change to do that in the steps ahead.

Your ultimate outcome may change as you learn more about the problem and test possible solutions. That’s okay.