If you’ve spent any time analyzing your organization’s data, you’ve probably noticed that some metrics matter more than others. The secret to building an audience isn’t just collecting as many social media followers and likes as you can. No matter how many leads you generate, they mean nothing without the relationship-building that must follow. Therefore it’s important to understand the difference between outputs versus outcomes.

Purpose of Outputs versus Outcomes

Successful marketers have an ability to distinguish the difference between an output and an outcome. These are easy to confuse. Many new marketers waste their time paying attention to their outputs while ignoring the true outcomes of their effort. Unfortunately this can lead to wasted efforts, confusion, and a lack of results. So what’s the difference?

An organization uses outputs to communicate and be seen by its audience. An output is an avenue or alley of communication. In modern times, most of these outputs are content marketing channels such as social media posts, blogs, and videos. The downside to churning out tons of content, despite its potential effectiveness, is that you can’t use this as a measure of success — you can publish loads of content and see no true return.

The return is essentially the outcome. Whether it’s more donors, awareness for your cause, or any other meaningful outcome, these activities are evidence of genuine progress. For example, an organization that sends out an email newsletter shouldn’t be laser-focused on open rates. It should focus on the result of those opens. In other words, who responded, who opted in to a program or exclusive offer? Did the email get your organization closer to a defined strategic goal — or not?

Examples of Measuring Results

Nonprofit veteran Jason Saul speaks of how one organization measured its grant funding in a yes-or-no fashion rather than actually measuring the result of the funding. In a group meeting, team members glossed over a $25,000 grant, considering only whether it had been received or not. The outcome — elderly citizens being transported to hospitals — was entirely overlooked. This is a classic case of  nonprofit outputs versus outcomes — where outputs are winning to the detriment of the nonprofit.

Ecology Project International published a data-driven impact report that showed the true outcomes of its work — including numbers, graphs, and images so donors could easily digest the data. Nonprofits that go the extra mile to track the appropriate metrics can demonstrate the impact of their work and boost donor trust.

True Measures of Success

It’s easy to lose your cool and assume that high open rates from one output equals success. And of course, it is a success to build awareness and grow your communications. But it’s not the type of success that upholds a sustainable organization in the long run. Leaders can’t exhale until they see the outcomes — the real fruits of their marketing labor where at least part of the mission is achieved.

With all the hype about social media likes, follows, and shares, it’s no surprise both nonprofit and business leaders get confused. Separating the metrics that matter from the fluff metrics isn’t always simple. A good rule of thumb is to tie each marketing activity closely to a specific objective — not a broad goal. For example, tie a social media campaign to an objective such as, “generate more signups for x program” rather than a goal like “generate more interest in the organization.” Staying specific allows you to measure metrics and come up with a yes or no answer: Did the strategy work or not? If the result is unclear, you may be falling into the trap of measuring outputs rather than outcomes.


In short, to get the most out of your data and your marketing attempts, you have to dig deep into understanding outputs versus outcomes. If it were all about chasing Twitter followers, successful marketing would be a breeze. Instead, it’s reserved for those clever organizations that are willing to observe, understand, and act.

Outputs are a great place to start in getting an idea of how your marketing efforts are going. But it’s not the full picture. Nonprofits need to dig deeper, observing the concrete outcome of each strategy to ensure it is actually working. You can truly prove impact with that type of information.

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