“Output vs. outcomes, who cares” is an expression I’ve heard from nonprofit and government leaders more than once. Typically, I’m not a stickler for semantics and jargon. However, the distinction, understanding, and adoption between these two concepts in social sector organizations is near and dear to my heart. It can be the difference between mediocrity and the creation of lasting and sustainable change. Mediocre organizations are stuck on making decisions based on outputs. Great organizations are managing to outcomes.
An exercise I present in my workshop to highlight the difference between outputs and outcomes revolves around hamburgers. McDonald’s sells approximately 33 million hamburgers a day. Five Guys sells approximately 350,000 burgers daily. Based on this information, I ask participants to decide who makes a better burger. Would you conclude that McDonald’s makes a better hamburger based on this data alone? Of course not! Just like my participants, you would want data around quality, nutrition, and taste before making this decision.
Unfortunately, many nonprofit and social service organizations are merely counting “hamburgers” and trying to use these data as proof of their effectiveness or impact. They are spending all their efforts trying to increase the numbers they serve without knowing how their services are changing their participant’s lives or circumstances.
In the restaurants’ cases, hamburgers are outputs. An output is what is created at the end of a process. Your outputs might be training classes offered, people served, and grants funded. Outputs tell the story of what you produced or your organization’s activities. Output measures do not address the value or impact of your services for your clients.
On the other hand, an outcome is the level of performance or achievement that occurred because of the activity or services your organization provided. Outcome measures are a more appropriate indicator of effectiveness. Outcomes quantify performance and assess the success of the process. In the hamburger example, some outcomes are the consumers’ perception of quality, or the ability of the product to eliminate hunger.
Outputs (e.g. the number of hamburgers or people served) do not communicate the profitability of the company. Nor does it demonstrate how the lives of the customers were impacted. Outcomes answer questions, such as:
- Did the participants learn something new?
- Have parenting skills improved?
- Are children achieving more in school?
Too often social sector organizations are only measuring outputs and they think they are doing enough. Sometimes a perception that it is too hard or impossible to measure outcomes stops leaders from collecting key outcomes data. This faulty thinking makes it difficult for organizations to demonstrate to funders how their organization is achieving their mission. It also means that organizations are making decisions that may not be directly related to the quality and impact of their services.
Understanding your outcomes will inspire positive change and advancement. Outcomes are about performance levels. Outcomes need to be expressed quantitatively, showing how performance changes over time. Therefore, it is critical to define and measure your outcomes prior to implementing your process or programs. Without the starting measure, it becomes difficult to demonstrate the true impact.
Moving toward measuring what matters most (outcomes) doesn’t have to be difficult.
When it comes to deciphering outputs vs. outcomes, you can commit today to measuring the impact of your organization by following these five basic steps:
- Describe the outcomes you want to achieve (why do you perform the process or service in the first place?).
- Turn the identified outcomes into a quantitative measure (i.e. % of clients demonstrating new behavior, % of clients coming back into treatment, etc.).
- Confirm that your desired outcomes are actually linked to your outputs or activities. In other words, ensure that it is reasonable to expect your desired outcomes to be achieved based on your activities.
- Implement these measures and track them over time.
- Demonstrate and increase your success because you have the data to confidently and appropriately communicate your impact and value.
Do you want to go beyond measuring hamburgers and start measuring outcomes? Do you need help defining and establishing your outcome measures? Measurement Resources is here for you!
Start the process today!
Check out our high-performance measurement services. In this cost-effective program we do all the hard work while you have all the fun on the road to greater accountability and impact. Contact us today to schedule a free 20-minute call to explore if this is the best program for you and your organization to parse out outputs vs. outcomes.
Sheri Chaney Jones
Measurement Resources Company