What are outputs? How can nonprofits pick them?
Updated: Nov 9
Outputs and outcomes are building blocks of nonprofit data collection.
It’s easy to overcomplicate these ideas, so here are simple working definitions to use:
Outputs - the things you do
Outcomes - the things you achieve through your outputs
In this post, we will focus on helping you understand the importance of tracking outputs and how to pick the right ones for your organization.
Outputs - the things you do
Your organization raises money (revenue) and spends that money (expenses) on something...mostly staff, stuff, and space.
The things you do with that staff, stuff, and space are your outputs.
Maybe you paint houses for the seniors, give free hot meals, tutor kids after school, clean up trash from waterways, give financial assistance to prevent evictions.
For many organizations, outputs lead to something bigger, outcomes. Your nonprofit might provide a set of services related to employment in hopes that your participants will get jobs. Each of those services is an output. For your employment focused programming, the following might be outputs:
You provided 50 interview prep sessions
You provided 10 skills training workshops
You helped 40 people create a resume
You did skills assessments with 30 people
Of course, every organization has outputs. There are countless examples:
You provided 500 pantry meals to 100 families
Twenty-five people attended your vegetarian cooking class
You provided $250 in rent assistance
Volunteers tutored 25 students an hour
You provided shelter beds for 100 nights
And on and on and on...
How to choose which outputs to track
If you have a service listed on your website or your annual report, or if you talk about something you do with donors, you almost certainly need to track at least one output related to that service. If you are not doing that, then you are missing the opportunity to talk about your work effectively and to learn more about your work.
Outputs are typically understood and tracked in a “units of service” manner, and they can be tangible (i.e. stuff) or intangible (i.e. experiences). For human service organizations, we have to think about counting people too.
Tracking Tangible Units of Service
It’s a good idea to collect data about everything tangible that you provide. The specific unit(s) of service that you choose to track and how you define them will be determined by your mission and values, what funders demand, and what donors find appealing.
Examples of Tangible Units of Services
For a food pantry, the most obvious units of service are meals, bags of food (if a “bag” is somehow standardized), or pounds of food.
At the end of the week, month, quarter, or year, you can say “we provided 2,500 meals this period, and that’s a 10% increase compared to last year”
For financial assistance, the most obvious unit of service is the number of Dollars (or Euros, Pesos, etc) provided.
At the end of the week, quarter, or year, you can say “we provided $50,000 in financial assistance this period, and that’s a 17% decrease compared to last year.”
Tracking Intangible Units of Service
It can be trickier to track outputs when you are providing time, knowledge, or expertise rather than “stuff”.
For example, a workforce development program might include resume workshops, one-on-one interview prep sessions, goal setting and check-in sessions with a case manager or coach, job search support, and lots more.
How do you turn that kind of work into a “unit of service” for “intangible” outputs?
Examples of Intangible Units of Service
Sessions - e.g. the number of coaching sessions you offered, the number of workshops you hosted.
Time - e.g. The total number of hours volunteers spent on riverbed cleanup.
You can also think about breaking down the distinct units of service during a session. This is really a way of thinking about how you break-down a session into different outputs that you want to (or need to) count. For example, one session might be comprised of 10 minutes reviewing resume, 10 minutes on interview prep, 10 minutes talking about strengths and areas for growth.
If your services help people, then you should always include people in your data.
People are not outputs or outcomes, but people are the beneficiaries of outputs and outcomes. When your work supports people, people should be at the center of your data collection, analysis, and reporting.
We served 1,500 meals to 250 different families last year.
Seventy-five (75) people attended our resume workshops in January, and we expect 100 people in February.
If you are a human service organization that doesn't talk about people, then your audience will wonder how much of an impact all those sessions, meals, or volunteer hours have. Sure, you can offer 100 hours of financial coaching, but does that help 100 people or does it help 10? There's not necessarily a right answer here (10 or 100), but you still need to provide that information.
Outputs Should be Important and Meaningful
The best outputs to track will be both important and meaningful. This ensures that the data will be worthwhile to collect, analyze, and report.
An output is important if it's core to the work your organization is doing. If you are primarily a food pantry, you need to track your food related outputs. You probably don’t need to track the number of times people use your phone to call their family.
An output is meaningful if it's something people can easily understand and place value in. For example, “meals” is a meaningful way to measure food provided because people can easily picture what a meal is. Every meal is different of course, but we can all grasp what it means in order to try to understand the work you are doing.
Less meaningful might be “portions” - “we provided 500 portions of cereal last week.” Hmm... what’s a portion of cereal? I kind of get it, maybe it’s just a bowl, but maybe it’s not.
It can be hard to know if an output is important and meaningful, so here are a few ways to figure it out:
Brainstorm some outputs and then gather feedback from your most faithful supporters or board members.
Ask organizations that do similar work. Also ask them how they use the data and what they learn from it.
Ask grant-makers who fund work like yours (but not necessarily you).
While you’re at it, stop tracking outputs that don’t fit the bill.
Measuring the things you do is the starting place
Tracking outputs is where nonprofits start. It helps you understand how you spend your limited resources; it’s a tool of accountability to yourselves and your funders; and often your supporters like to see the big numbers (e.g. We served 50,000 meals last year) as you tell your story.
Remember that outputs are things you do and outcomes are things you achieve through your outputs. Keep that distinction in mind when you think about and describe your work.
For example, when a foundation asks you to describe the outcomes of your work, you would not say “we provided 25 hours of tutoring” or “we had 50 interview prep sessions” because those are outputs. That foundation wants to know about your achievements. Instead, when asked about outcomes, you could say: “We helped 25 students read at grade-level by the end of 3rd grade” and “we helped 40 people get jobs”. Those are achievements, not services delivered.
With our solid understanding of outputs, we're ready dive into outcomes in a future post.
This post is part of our nonprofit data bootcamp series. Check out the complete list of nonprofit data bootcamp topics with links to other published posts.
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Founder, CountBubble, LLC