Metrics: Outputs and Outcomes


Outputs are the cups of soup, the number of parenting workshops, the tuberculosis vaccines, the mosquito nets.

The terms "outputs" and "outcomes" are used to describe changes at different levels from the delivery of goods and services to long-term, sustainable behavioral change. The distinction is critical when discussing community development, as these concepts determine how philanthropies and measure results and thus develop strategies. A helpful way of thinking about these labels is with respect to time. Output- and outcome-centric metrics consider results at different points in time following an intervention, ranging from immediate to long-term. However, this temporal difference is not the determining characteristic of what makes an approach output, outcome, or impact based.


Outputs are the deliverables: the important products and services provided directly by an organization. Outputs are the cups of soup, the parenting workshops, the tuberculosis vaccines, the mosquito nets. In other words, output is the stuff organizations produce. This data is the most simple to collect and analyze, because outputs involve the organization’s own activities, and tend to be easily quantifiable. Plus, in terms of the time scale, information can be gathered during or immediately after an intervention.


By contrast, outcomes are the actual effect and benefit for beneficiaries. They are the difference made by the outputs. Outcome-oriented philanthropy has been practiced for at least a century, but the past decade has seen an upsurge in both its intensity and its extent. This is a step removed from the organization’s direct activities. Even without this distance, behavioral and systemic changes are larger, more vague things to measure. Orienting towards outcomes requires understanding the target population in terms of their needs, priorities, challenges, and values. Only by immersing into the lives of beneficiaries or following rigorous social sciences research can philanthropists truly strategize an outcome-based approach and, later, measure the real change their work has caused.

Image Courtesy of Ubuntu Pathways.

Image Courtesy of Ubuntu Pathways.

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The skepticism around using output- and outcome-based metrics stems mainly from objections to the measurement of results in philanthropy. A prominent argument is that philanthropy should support local organizations without insisting upon set results. The core principle here is that higher degrees of outside intervention and attempts at broad-scale social change are plagued by unexpected consequences. Another source of opposition arises from the belief that an obsession with metrics may lead philanthropists to sacrifice ambition or innovation in their endeavors.