While the concept of differentiating between your outputs and outcomes is nothing new to non-profits, the reality is that many still struggle to clearly define them. The concept of measuring outcomes emerged in the funding community a couple decades ago and non-profits were quickly expected to tell their story of impact in order to continue to receive funding. Some funders have provided training and capacity building to help non-profits understand how to track their impact, but many non-profits continue to lack the time and resources to tell a true story of impact based on the data they capture. The movement to track outcomes over outputs has been an important evolution for non-profits, but its just as important to understand the relationship between the two. With the right tools, non-profits can equip themselves to tell a story of impact that not only keeps their existing stakeholders happy, but also continues to attract new ones.
Debra Mills Scofield wrote in the Harvard Business Journal, “Outputs are important products (programs), services and revenues: the What. Outcomes create meanings, relationships, and differences: the Why. Outputs, such as revenue enable us to fund outcomes; but without outcomes, there is no need for outputs.”
Understanding the relationship between outputs and outcomes is critical to be able to determine which activities are having a positive impact on your desired outcomes. For example, I used to work for a non-profit that had a several successful job training programs. The desired outcome was to return people experiencing homelessness to work so they had a sustainable form of income that could support them in permanent housing. In this example, there are two desired outcomes: 1. Sustainable employment wages. 2. Moving into permanent housing. Some of the outputs the organization engaged in included several different job training programs based on best fit for the client. When we began do compare the outcomes from each program, we noticed that one program was lagging far behind the success of the other programs. It became clear that the output of conducting this job training program wasn’t actually proving to be successfully in attaining the outcome of sustainable employment wages. After careful consideration we decided to discontinue the program and move more resource into the programs that were producing more positive results.
Many non-profits report on outputs and outcomes, but the example above shows how important it is to understand the relationship between the two. This is why logic models can be very helpful. If done correctly they should help non-profits to focus their efforts on the key activities and outputs that will directly lead to achievement of their desired outcomes. Understanding the relationship takes practice though… just like developing strong muscle memory. The key is to plan a regular time to review your key outputs and outcomes. Bring a spirit to learn and an openness to explore all questions. The questions will spur conversation that will reveal the key linkages between your outputs and outcomes and ultimately the ability for your organization to focus on activities and outputs that lead to greater impact (outcomes).