Impacts and outcomes

Filed Under (program evaluation) by Molly on 03-12-2010 and tagged , ,

There is an ongoing discussion about the difference between impact and outcome.  I think this is an important discussion because Extension professionals are asked regularly to demonstrate  the impact of their program.

There is no consensus about these terms.  They are often used interchangeably. Yet, the consensus is that they are not the same.  When Extension professionals plan an evaluation, it is important to keep these terms separate.  Their meaning is distinct and different.

So what exactly is IMPACT?

And what is an OUTCOME?

What points do we need to keep in mind when considering if the report we are making is a report of OUTCOMES or a report of IMPACTS.  Making explicit the meaning of these words before beginning the program is important.  If there is no difference in your mind, then that needs to be stated.  If there is a difference from your perspective, that needs to be stated as well.  It may all depend on who the audience is for the report.  Have you asked your supervisor (Staff Chair, Department Head, Administrator) what they mean by these terms?

One way to look at this issue is to go to simpler language:

  • What is the result (effect) of the intervention (read ‘program’)–that is, SO WHAT?  This is impact.
  • What is the intervention influence (affect) on the target audience–that is, WHAT HAPPENED?  This is outcome.

I would contend that impact is the effect (i.e., the result) and outcome is the affect (i.e., the influence).

Now to complicate this discussion a bit–where do OUTPUTS fit?

OUTPUTS are necessary and NOT sufficient to determine the influence (affect) or results (effect) of an intervention.  Outputs count things that were done–number of people trained; feet of stream bed reclaimed; number of curriculum written; number of…(fill in the blank).  Outputs do not tell you either the affect or the effect of the intervention.

The difference I draw may be moot if you do not draw the distinction.  If you don’t that is OK.  Just make sure that you are explicit with what you mean by these terms:  OUTCOMES and IMPACT.

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