Outputs and Outcomes and Impact, Oh My!

January 20, 2021

"Describe the impact of your program."

"In less than 1000 characters, describe how your program impacts the community."

"Describe the outputs, outcomes, and impact you will measure to determine your program's effectiveness."

Have you seen these prompts on funding applications and found yourself suddenly motivated to reorganize the filing cabinet or deep clean the coffee pot? Being able to articulate the impact of any program can be tough, but it's especially tough if your programs overlap, intertwine, or aren't well defined. It can also be paralyzing to try and reduce a program or an organization that you've spent countless hours building and nurturing to just a few sentences that describe something as huge sounding as "impact". A recent Social Solutions survey found that 83% of grantmakers said impact was the most important consideration for funding. Similarly, 58% of mainstream and 61% of high income donors pay close attention to the impact of the nonprofits to whom they donate. So how can you articulate your impact well? One of the first steps is understanding the terms people use when talking about impact.

Outputs are the quantitative measurements of the activities of your program. Some people refer to this as "butts in seats". Outputs are how many people received the program or how many sessions they attended. Outputs are transactional. They tell you about the "dosage" that your participants received. For example, if your program offers math tutoring for middle schoolers, the number of students tutored and the number of hours or sessions of tutoring might be good outputs.

Outcomes are a measure of the change your program helped create in or for participants. When you think about how you want participants to be transformed as a result of a program, those are your outputs. Using the same math tutoring example, outcomes may be the students' percentile change on a math skills test from before the program to after.

Impact is broader and asserts a causal relationship between your program and outcomes. Often, impact refers to longer term or more distal outcomes. Anecdotally, impact and outcomes are sometimes used interchangeably. In the same math tutoring example, maybe the real rationale for the tutoring program is to increase the number of underrepresented students in math college programs and careers. So the hope (this ties into your theory of change) is that by providing math tutoring in middle school, you can build a love for the subject, create math-related role models in the tutors, and increase the students' interest in a math career. To really measure your impact, you need to have that theory of change articulated and evaluate the role that tutoring had on students' college and career choice. Impact is the ultimate 'so what?' measurement that we all strive for, but it's very difficult to measure and achieve.

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