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Outcomes are the true measure of your effectiveness

Outcomes are changes in the people, organizations or communities that your program serves. These changes begin internally and ultimately lead to demonstrated changes in behavior. Outcomes are measurable, meaningful to participants and program stakeholders, and sustained over time. They result logically from your program activities.

Outcomes don't develop in your participants' environments without your intervention, and they don't happen accidentally. Outcomes represent an intentional commitment by your program.

Outcomes are also different from outputs, which are specific measures tied to your programs. Outputs count how many people you touch and how many times you touch them, while outcomes are how their lives changed because of that touch.

What are the main outcomes stages?

Outcomes tend to happen in stages, with each set of outcomes providing a necessary foundation for the next set. For example, consider how a child learns to read:

  • Initial outcomes. At first, outcomes include new knowledge and skills — such as learning the alphabet and understanding phonics and sight words. Initial outcomes also include internal changes, such as taking an interest in reading. These skills and changed attitudes or values are a direct result of your program activities.
  • Intermediate outcomes. Intermediate outcomes include modified behavior or reached milestones, such as reading simple books out loud or reading at a third grade level with comprehension. Although sometimes more easily observed than initial outcomes, intermediate outcomes can grow only if the necessary initial outcomes have first developed.
  • Long-term outcomes. These are the changes in life status that result from sustaining intermediate outcomes over time: in this case, reading for knowledge, academic success and pleasure. Long-term outcomes are the improved condition and altered status that continue years after program completion.

Why are outcomes so important?

Your program exists to meet the needs of a specific population, or to help them climb a specific ladder of outcomes. The population you serve may depend on your help to climb this ladder, if the necessary resources aren't easily accessible in their environment.

In the words of Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, "If you don't know where you are going, any road can take you there." But if you know who your participants are and the outcomes you commit to help them achieve, you can:

  • Find out how successful you are at getting them there
  • Assess which activities — and in what dosage and duration — are needed to help achieve outcomes
  • Align your organization, leadership, partners, resources and operations with the same outcomes-oriented goals
  • Learn where you're succeeding, where you're not and how you might improve

Your participants and donors count on you to be clear about the pathway and the support needed to reach your outcomes goals. More than simply a nonprofit's bottom line, outcomes are the reason your organization exists and the true measure of your effectiveness.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.




Founding Director, Capacity Institute at Black Ministerial Alliance