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 In Data Analysis Concepts Simplified, Data Resources for Nonprofits, How To

As a nonprofit, being able to measure your accomplishments is critical to your survival and your success. Donors won’t support causes that can’t show a return on their investment, and your organization can’t keep dedicating resources to causes that don’t accomplish (at least some of) your goals.

But do you know the difference between counting outputs and counting results?

Does this sound like semantics? Maybe. But it’s not. In the world of data analysis for nonprofits, there is a very real and very significant difference between counting outputs and counting results, and it’s important you know which one you’re doing.

What’s the Difference?

A growing number of funding sources are shifting their expectations to result or outcome measurement, rather than output. Outcomes, outputs — isn’t it all the same? Before you can make the switch from counting outputs to counting results, it’s important you understand precisely what separates the two.

Counting outputs is using measurements that are often also referred to as vanity metrics in the digital world. How many people attended your event? How many people did you reach with your message? These figures are nice to know — even valuable in some cases, since the reach of your message and participation in your events are both key to success. But they don’t necessarily convey how close you came to achieving your ultimate goal.

Counting results, on the other hand, measures not only the reach of your project but the changes that occurred because of it. Assuming the purpose of your event was not simply to gather as many people as possible in one place, it’s important to know what happened to those people after they participated. What changes occurred because of your efforts?

In short, outputs measure events. Outcomes measure changes that occur as a result of those events. While outputs look at what you did, results look at what difference you made.

Making the Switch

It’s one thing to recognize the difference between outputs and outcomes… but how do you transition from measuring one to measuring the other? Making the switch requires a bit of effort on your part, but the reward will come in more effective and compelling measurements of the difference you’re making in the world.

To simplify your switch from counting outputs to counting results, I’ve broken down the process into three simple steps. It may seem daunting but remember: you’re not changing what you do, simply adjusting what you measure.

Step One: Make a List of All Your Current Outputs

Not sure where to start? An easy way to identify your outputs is to look for action words associated with your program or project. For example:

  • You hosted a training session
  • You promoted a campaign on social media
  • You developed a curriculum

Each of these verbs is directly tied to an output number that you may be tempted to record to justify your efforts: how many people attended, viewed, or participated in what you did. Resist the urge to start counting just yet.
Step Two: Write Down Why You Take Each Action
This is the first step towards a transition from counting outputs to counting results. Obviously, each of the actions you’ve listed is something you do because you hope to make something else happen as a result. Next to your list of outputs (action items), write down why you do each one. What are you hoping to achieve with that action?

  • You hosted a training session to increase qualified volunteers for your project
  • You promoted a campaign on social media to reach a donation target
  • You developed a curriculum to improve participant success rates

Obviously, my examples here are pretty broad, but the more specific you can be, the more effective your measurements will be.

  • Met (or exceed) your campaign’s financial goals? By how much?
  • Are your program participant success rates improving? How can you tell?

Compare Counting Outputs to Counting Results

That’s it — you’re done. It seems almost too simple, doesn’t it? But let’s compare what you have to show for your efforts:

Comparing Outputs and Outcomes

Which set of statistics make a more compelling case for what you do? Remember results can be short-, medium- or long-term changes that occur because of your efforts. Our next post in our Data Analysis for Nonprofits series will discuss how you can refine your outcome list and select the right data to populate your outcomes.

Datassist: Data Analysis for Nonprofits

At Datassist, our goal is to help you tell your story. We combine one part art with one part science and a whole lot of passion to help you capture the hearts and minds of your audience. Let us help you more effectively quantify your achievements — and share them with the world.

If you want help collecting and analyzing your data or using it to create a narrative that will educate and inspire those you share it with, our team of statisticians, data visualizers, and graphic designers are here to help. Get in touch now to learn more or get started.

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