Differentiating between output, outcome and impact

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The terms “output, outcome and impact” are frequently used vocabulary for the nonprofit sector. However, the distinction between these three concepts is not always clear, they are often used interchangeably to the detriment of organisations. It is important to differentiate between these terms as they represent different stages in an organisation's journey towards desired change.

There are many steps between the activity of an organisation and the ultimate change or impact it hopes to achieve. Misunderstanding these steps means you risk missing out a key part, thereby endangering the entire process.

Here’s a bit more detail about these terms and the difference between them.

 Output

Outputs are the goods and services an organisation provides its beneficiaries with. They are the tangible products of organisations' programmes. Output measures do not address the value or impact of the services provided to beneficiaries. 

Outputs are the answers to questions such as:

  • How many training courses and workshops were offered to children and their parents?
  • How many people did the programme train?
  • How many bed-nets did the organisation hand out for Malaria prevention in Sub-Saharan Africa?

When you start measuring the impact of these actions and programmes, then you're talking about outcomes and not outputs.

Outcome

An outcome is the impact of the goods or services an organisation’s action has on its beneficiaries. It is the short and medium-term effects of an intervention’s outputs. Outcome measurements are always quantitative, which allows organisati─▒ns to monitor changes in performance over time. Without the outcome measurement, it becomes difficult to demonstrate the actual impact. Understanding your outcomes will inspire positive change and help determine if you're close to achieving your desired impact. 

Charitable organizations often confuse outputs and outcomes. They only measure outputs and think it is sufficient. The perception that it is too hard or impossible to measure outcomes stops organizations from collecting key outcome data. This misconception makes it difficult to show the timeline of an organization's course towards achieving its mission. As a result, organizations make decisions that are not directly related to the quality and impact of their work. 

Outcomes are the answer to questions such as:

  • How many children passed their exams?
  • How many parents finished their workshops and passed their courses?
  • Is the number of Malaria cases reduced?

Impact

Impact defines the primary and secondary long-term effects, positive and negative, of an intervention. These effects can be direct or indirect, intended or unintended, but impact is the contribution of the intervention to the overall goal. 

Similar to output and outcome, charitable organizations confuse outcome with impact from time to time. It is frequent that they refer to the outcome of their intervention as the impact. This confusion prevents organizations from recognizing the true impact of their intervention.

Outcomes provide initial information on whether an intervention is on course to achieving its desired goal. When measured accurately, the outcome serves as an early indicator and allows organisations to make adjustments. Confusing outcome and impact can lead organisations to miss out on opportunities to adjust their programmes in time.  

Impact measurement answers questions such as:

  • Have the literacy courses resulted in a better bonding between parents and children?
  • Have families with new mosquito nets reported an increased sense of wellbeing?
  • Has school attendance increased as a result of fewer incidences of malaria?

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