Inputs, Outputs, Outcomes and Impact


“If your decisions are always dollar-driven, you’re not going to have the outcomes you’re looking for,” warns Winnipeg philanthropy consultant Joan Blight. That’s true whether the dollars you’re discussing are spent on program, administration or fundraising.

Charities already know, of course, that measuring dollars spent does not lead to an understanding of impact. But what does? Numbers of participants or clients? Large numbers can be impressive for funders making quick judgements. But do they really reflect progress in individual lives? Improvements in a community? Changes to the systemic factors that created the problems in the first place?

A growing number of thought leaders in the field of impact evaluation believe that impact cannot be measured easily or quickly. “Impact should be understood as a journey from inputs to outputs, then to outcomes, and finally to impacts,” explains PwC corporate responsibility director James Temple. “Many organizations are still stuck in the world of outputs and outcomes. It’s hard to move to impact.”

Know the difference

Let’s start by defining the terms James uses. Inputs are everything and everyone that a charity uses to deliver its mission. Outputs are what the charity produces – educational programs, shelter, counselling, concerts, health information, etc. When charities report on their programs, the outputs are the easiest to report. How many attended literacy classes? How many were housed, and what were their demographics? How many concerts were produced?

Outcomes and impact are more challenging to track. Both address the question, “What difference did it make?” Outcomes focus on the individual in the short or medium term. They may include numbers, but those numbers measure something that goes beyond the charities’ own programs – for example, the number of participants in a literacy class who were motivated to seek a high school equivalency diploma.

Impact is longer-term and reaches beyond the individual. With literacy class graduates, for example, their ability to read stories to their children might lead to those children doing better in school. Their ability to read everything from medication labels to memos from a supervisor might lead to greater prescription compliance or improved performance at work.

You can see the challenge of gathering the data required to assess such wide-ranging changes. Here are some tips from Tris Lumley and James Noble, writing for The Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Blog:

1. Know why you’re measuring your impact.

Is it to help you and your trustees understand and improve your impact? To communicate your results to funders? To feed back to your stakeholders? Whatever it is, make sure your approach gives you what you and your evaluators need.

2. Set the right questions. 

What problem are you trying to tackle? What changes do you want to bring about and how? What are your goals? How will you know if you’ve achieved them?

3. Don’t assume that you have to measure everyone and everything yourselves. 

Look at what other institutions have already learned and ask how it applies to your work. There are plenty of studies and reports on the impact of literacy classes, for example.

4. Tools and frameworks

When collecting your own data, look for tools and frameworks to borrow before you start designing your own questions. Collect some information from everyone and more detailed data from a sample.

When Winnipeg’s Inner City Renovation (ICR ) began probing their impact, local merchants told them something they hadn’t expected: ICR’s improvements to the neighbourhood’s dilapidated housing had helped to drive drug dealers out of the area. You may never know all of the difference you make. But the more you ask, the more you will learn about the impact you intended to have and the even broader-ranging changes you might not have suspected.