Demystifying Outcomes Measurement: A Glossary for Funders

Jul 10, 2017 7:00 AM ET

Demystifying Outcomes Measurement: A Glossary for Funders

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Over the past several years, I’ve met with countless people at a wide variety of organizations to connect on outcomes measurement, and I tend to hear similar questions and qualms about this still-new area. “How do we get started?” “Is there a difference between measurement and evaluation?” “Is there a right way to define an outcome?” From these conversations–as well as evidence from the change-making work we see our customers achieving–two things jump out at me.

  1. There is a groundswell of interest in outcomes measurement and a desire to get it right across the sector. There is a clear acknowledgement among giving organizations that we have reached a point of impact where impact–not the act of giving in and of itself–is the point of our efforts.
  2. There are so many terms floating around that it’s making outcomes measurement seem overwhelming for organizations and individual change-makers who want to get started. If we can demystify the terminology around outcomes measurement and impact storytelling, could that lower the barrier to entry?

To get to the root of No. 2 and help you understand what’s what when it comes to outcomes measurement, let’s break down some terms that might lead to confusion. Let’s start at the beginning, where you’re developing your overall organizational strategy.

Mission vs. Vision

These two terms work hand in hand, but they aren’t interchangeable.

Mission speaks to who your organization is and what you stand for. At the core, your mission statement should answer the question, “Who are we, and why do we exist?”

Vision is inherently focused on impact. Your vision is what your organization seeks to achieve, and your outcomes help to prove if you are achieving your desired impact.

As an example, a corporate foundation may have a mission statement that says, “We address the basic human and social issues faced by residents, primarily women and children, in our local community.” That same corporate foundation may have a vision of all members of the local community living healthy, safe, and secure lives. The key to achieving this vision is identifying strategies or program areas that enable the foundation to get to that desired result. 

Measurement vs. Evaluation

While these terms have similar meanings, they aren’t synonyms; rather, they are complementary tools that can be used to look at the overall impact of a methodology within a focus area.

Measurement looks at program performance and participant achievement at the current time. Anyone and everyone who is involved in grantmaking and investing in social change should use measurement to understand progress toward goals.

Evaluation looks at the effectiveness of a methodology, such as what is the best educational approach to prepare young children for kindergarten. Evaluation isn’t necessarily for everyone; it tends to be more expensive to undertake and generally lends itself best to organizations focused on research or large-scale systemic change.

As an example, a research-focused organization may use evaluation to determine the fitness of a particular method or model while using measurement to understand if the method or model is working on a range of criteria. 

Outputs vs. Outcomes

The difference between these two terms is at the crux of how we think about impact storytelling and the results-focused giving shift.

Outputs are the direct result of a program’s activities, often expressed in terms of units. More than one output is necessary to produce an outcome. Examples of outputs are pounds of food distributed, number of financial education classes provided, or number of grants made to a nonprofit or initiative. Outputs should be captured to help paint a picture of your giving and impact, but they aren’t the whole story.

Outcomes are the “so what” of your giving – they illuminate the difference your outputs made. They are the desired change in status, condition or behavior that results from a particular set of programs or activities. More than one outcome is necessary to produce an impact. Outcomes focus on the impact you seek to achieve, and emphasize what is different and better as a result of your giving.

As an example, a giving organization focused on ending domestic violence may look at 100 temporary orders of protection being filed as an output and at 300 women and children who have had their immediate needs stabilized and are living in safe spaces as an outcome. 

Granting vs. Investing

The nuance between these two terms is important to keep in mind as the sector moves from traditional checkbook philanthropy to the results-focused giving model.

Granting speaks more to what your organization is giving to a nonprofit or individual change-maker. In fact, a synonym for “grant” is “bestow.” The emphasis is on your giving – not necessarily of the expectation of a certain result or return on your investment.

Investing conveys a stronger sense of expectation of a return. After all, as a results-focused funder, you’re investing in the change your grantees can achieve and their ability to generate a return in the form of social change.

As an example, traditional funders may say “We granted $10,000 to our local food bank to end hunger.” A results-focused funder wants to take this a step further and know what those dollars achieved so they can report a result like, “Our $10,000 investment in our local food bank resulted in 250 residents getting their food needs met and becoming food secure.”  

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to terminology surrounding outcomes measurement and impact storytelling. The more we can align on the language of giving, the simpler it will be to go all in on the journey to outcomes and impact.

This article was authored by Michelle DiSabato, Impact Advisor in Blackbaud's Corporate & Foundation Solutions Group.