I say ‘outcome’, you say ‘output’: Let’s get our definitions right!

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When having a conversation about the impact of an initiative, often there is a lack of common understanding across the basic definitions of the elements of an impact journey. It is not uncommon to see ‘output’, ‘outcome’ and ‘impact’ being used interchangeably and interpreted differently. This may create confusion especially when you would like to map out how change occurs due to your business or initiative. Moreover, understanding these elements will make your job easier when it comes to identifying suitable methods to measure your impact. In this article, I aim to bring clarity to how these 3 elements of impact differ from one another with the help of examples in three different contexts.

In an impact journey there are three levels of impact that interact with each other. They tell the story of the difference you make in the lives of the beneficiaries and key stakeholders of an initiative and society in general. These levels are output, outcome and impact. My intention is not to invent new definitions for these as there are already many of them at your fingertips when you do a quick online search. Instead, for the purposes of this article, I will use OECD’s definitions, which are available in fifteen languages, to illustrate what an impact journey looks like all the way from inputs to impacts. These definitions are in the context of ‘development interventions’ but they should still make sense if you think about your own context when reviewing them:

Here are three contexts where we can see how outputs, outcomes and impacts are defined and interact with one another. The lists below are mainly based on the changes experienced by the beneficiaries and therefore are not fully comprehensive. They are compiled with the intention to reveal differences by examples and get you thinking about the outputs, outcomes and impacts of your own initiatives.

Example #1 – A training course on diversity in the workplace:

Outputs: Number of hours of training undertaken, number of people trained, diversity of people trained

Outcomes: Increase in knowledge about diversity, increase in positive attitudes about diversity, increase in level of openness, increase in level of intercultural competence

Impacts: Increase in positive attitudes leading to behavioural change and resulting in a more inclusive work environment; increased openness to other cultures and intercultural competence leading to social cohesion

Example #2 – An exhibition about the achievements of visually impaired people

Outputs: Number of visitors, number of days the exhibition was run

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>Outcomes:</em> Increase in awareness about the capabilities of visually impaired people, positive change in attitudes towards visually impaired, increase in the ability to empathize with visually impaired, increase in knowledge about how to communicate with visually impaired, increase in awareness of the importance of other sensesOutcomes: Increase in awareness about the capabilities of visually impaired people, positive change in attitudes towards visually impaired, increase in the ability to empathize with visually impaired, increase in knowledge about how to communicate with visually impaired, increase in awareness of the importance of other senses

Impacts: Increase in positive attitudes towards and ability to empathise with visually impaired people, leading to behavioural change and resulting in reduction in inequality

Example #3 – An outdoor education program for young people

Outputs: Number of young people taking part, number of staff and volunteers trained to support the program, number of hours of training undertaken, number of hours spent outdoors, number of hours spent doing physical activity

Outcomes: Increase experience in planning and problem solving, increased experience in teamworking, sense of achievement and satisfaction, increased interest in physical activity, increased awareness of environmental issues, increased appreciation of nature

Impacts: Enhanced life skills leading to improved employability; increased appreciation of nature and awareness of environmental issues leading to reduced environmental impact

It is when we move on from outputs towards outcomes and impacts that we start to talk about the change that the beneficiaries experience in their lives. The zone of the outcomes and impacts is where we ask the ‘so what?’ question. So what happens when 100,000 people visit the exhibition? And so what happens if they became more aware of the capabilities of visually impaired? So what happens if your employees know more about diversity at workplace? So what happens if young people have an increased interest in physical activity and nature?

To reach the ultimate ‘impact’, keep asking ‘so what’ until it takes you to broader changes that occur within the community, organization, society, or environment which you can no further challenge with a ‘so what’ question. Are you struggling with conceptualizing what those broader changes could be? This is where your impact may intersect with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. Check them out to see whether any of your outcomes may be leading to any of these global goals.

Has this article helped you to distinguish your outputs, outcomes and impacts? The more examples we hear the better we can relate to these concepts and juggle with them comfortably. Please share your initial thoughts about the elements of your impact journey that this article has prompted. What is your context? What outputs, outcomes or impacts come to your mind?

Melek De-Wint is an impact practitioner and supports organizations across the world to understand, measure and communicate their impact.