Outputs, outcomes – what’s the difference for nonprofits?

These days, I deal with a lot of people in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector for whom the topic of programmatic outcomes is fraught with anxiety.

It’s always unnerving when I discover that they equate outcomes with what they do (i.e., outputs), rather than with the change that occurs as a result of what they do (i.e., outcomes).  In other words, there a lot of nonprofit and philanthropic professionals who are not only anxious about programmatic outcomes, but who are confused about the exact nature of what they are tracking.

Fortunately, help is at hand.  A while back, while I was working on a nonprofit management information project with Third Sector New England, we shot a short video, in which Deborah Linnell (then with TSNE, now with the van Beuren Charitable Foundation) explained about outputs, outcomes, and logic models.

This video is not only brief but clear.  I recommend it to anyone who is working in a mission-based organization, and urge you to replay it on a regular basis, lest confusion set in again.  It’s worth the time, effort, and bandwidth to stay clear on this important distinction.

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4 thoughts on “Outputs, outcomes – what’s the difference for nonprofits?

  1. Isaac Castillo (@isaac_outcomes) 12/19/2012 at 10:56 am Reply

    As one of the few other people that also loves logic models, I appreciate the beginning of this video. But I do have a little bit of a qualm with the example used to describe outputs and outcomes.

    I agree that a program designed to provide meals for homeless individuals can (and should) count meals as outputs. But to claim that the meal consumed by an individual is what leads to changes in behavior, or housing status, or employment status, is a real stretch. All the meal does is keep someone’s stomach full for a few hours, or at most a day. To be perfectly honest, I don’t see the logical connection between a single meal (or even multiple meals) and outcomes such as those described above (or in the video).

    A better example would have been a food service training program for homeless individuals that teaches them how to become cooks or chefs while also feeding them everyday. The outputs would be meals served and also attendance at the training classes. Those classes would then lead to the outcomes of job skills and ultimately employment.

    This isn’t to say that a program that just provides meals is a bad thing – it provides a valuable service. But those services are outputs. Claiming that simply giving people meals will lead to outcomes (changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills, or behaviors) is stretching the truth.

  2. d 12/19/2012 at 12:54 pm Reply

    Yes, I probably could have come up with a better example, but wanted to keep it very simple given the short time span for explaining in the video. Isaac’s email points out what is important about individual program leaders taking the time to understand the links between a plan, implementation, results and overall outcomes for end-users or the community. That said, there is research that links the importance of one meal – breakfast – to a child’s learning in school and consistent nutrition to overall educational achievement.

  3. Deborah Elizabeth Finn 12/19/2012 at 1:01 pm Reply

    Deb and Issac: I’m delighted to see serious, dedicated experts discussing this point. Thank you so much.

  4. Isaac Castillo (@isaac_outcomes) 12/19/2012 at 5:34 pm Reply

    Deb – thanks for highlighting the crux of my comment: program providers and leaders need to be able to explain the logical link between services offered and the outcomes they claim come about from those services.

    Let me also comment about the research you highlight about breakfast. You are right in saying there there is research (and pretty good research) that links the regular consumption of breakfast to improved academic outcomes for youth. However, that research points out that it has to be regular consumption of breakfast – not just eating breakfast on one day during the entire school year. Giving a child a healthy breakfast on the first day of school prepares them for that day, but in the grand scheme of things, that single meal does nothing for the child if the child misses breakfast every day for the rest of the school year.

    I make that distinction because I think it is very relevant to the example in your video. Unfortunately, I have seen some organizations claim that the provision of a single meal is a life-altering experience for homeless individuals that leads to improved housing and employment outcomes. I don’t think that is what you meant in your video, but I did want to highlight this distinction.

    Regular provision of services (which would measured through outputs) is what usually leads to change (outcomes – or changes in knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, or skills). Instances of a single service (like a single meal, or a one-time health fair, or a single education session) leading to outcomes are very, very rare.

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