Customising definitions of outputs, outcomes and impact

(from the OM email list)
I am continually challenged with the organisations with whom I work to define the terms we will use. They are by and large Northern donors and their grantees – development NGOs and social change networks. I find that the meaning of outcome and impact (and output) varies considerably and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Thus, one of the biggest mistakes I can make is not to define the terms right from the start.

In a recent discussion titled Outcomes vs. Impact on the American Evaluation Association listserv EVALTALK, I shared a simple instrument that I use for developing common agreement about the definitions of outputs, outcomes and impact. It can be found at:

Hope it is helpful to some of you planners, monitors, evaluators and those who employ them.

If you are interested in the AEA EVALTALK listserv, subscribe at To use the archives, go to this web site: Please note that the discussion I refer to will only be archived in September.

Best wishes,

ricardo wilson-grau consulting
NEW: Oude Singel 184, 2312 RH Leiden, Netherlands
Rua Marechal Marques Porto 2/402, Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, CEP 20270-260, Brasil
Tel: 55 21 2284 6889, Skype: ricardowilsongrau

10 thoughts on “Customising definitions of outputs, outcomes and impact”

  1. Hi Ricardo

    FYI, my own actor oriented definitions go along these lines:

    Activity: processes within the organisation concerned

    Outputs: goods or services produced by the organisation and used by others

    Outcomes: immediate to short term changes in the user of those outputs

    Impact: longer term changes in that user, or more distant changes – in others who have a relationship with the user.

  2. Hi Ricardo,

    I work in Africa for similar donors and networks like you do. I face similar challenges in making these definitions. My definitions are pretty close to those of Rick Davies…and use the reverse engineering approach

    Outputs: What we did

    Outcomes: What happened – ie: response of the intervention site to our actions.

    Impact: what Changed.

    Mutahi Ngunyi
    The Consulting House
    Nairobi Kenya

  3. The explicit definitions of the terms; outputs, outcomes and impact were so clear to me that I had wished I get other basic definitions on M&E from you.
    I am new on the job and the whole thing looks so strange to me. That has been my greatest challenge.
    Kindly send as much information to me as you can to enable me stand on my feet in my organization and become resourceful.

  4. Outputs:products i.e (bicycles)
    Outcomes:What the products do, used for, i.e(ease transport)
    Impact:when people use those products what long time postive and longterm attributes,or risks can they have been eliminated for adopting to such services or product.(workers reach in time,employment in form of repairs at road side, women can now assisted to collect firewood and water)

    Peter Buyondo

  5. Analogy of breakfast.
    Good bread and cheese is input
    Taking breakfast is process
    Filed up your stomach is output
    Sufficient calory intake is outcome
    Sufficient energy to do your daily work is impact

    Hariadi Wibisono
    New Delhi

  6. Understanding IN TERMS OF levels in case of outputs, outcomes, impacts etc. is more EASIER. Defining it will/may very with change in context. Understanding of “WHICH LEADS TO WHAT?” is more importand.

    I think Hariadi Wibisono from New Delhi has explained it nicely.

  7. All the output, outcome and impact are the results of activities. Output is the immediate result of the activity, Outcome is the result gained by using the output. And impact is the result what outcome resulted in long run in socio, economic, cultural and pollitical secnario. For example. Rearing milch animal is an activity. The milk we receive from the animal is the output whereas the nutritiion that gained by drinking milk is the outcome. The impact is the improved health status of people.

  8. Defining what the RBM terms means in English is difficult enough, because the terms are essentially jargon – specialised language that does not necessarily reflect how the words are used in everyday life. Some agencies have used “Outputs” to mean essentially completed activities, others use the term to refer to short-term results. And there are a variety of different interpretations of how Outputs relate to long-term results.

    But for people in the field, in local governments, or NGOs, all of this is fairly arcane. Explaining the RBM terminology in another language – Thai, Khmer,
    Vietnamese or Bahasa Indonesia, for example – brings home how artificial and unnecessary these terms, and the distinctions different agencies make between them, are. My conclusions, both from trying to explain this myself,
    directly in other languages, and in other cases through interpreters, is that in some cases people working in these languages have to create new terms to explain all of this. And as in English – who can remember what these terms
    mean the week after a workshop? The jargon essentially makes communication more difficult, and who needs that?

    Over the past few years, in the context of monitoring several dozen development projects, on a variety of topics in Southeast Asia, I asked Southeast Asian development professionals, how they would describe their own results. The unsurprising conclusion is that the simplest word to explain results in most of these languages – and a word people can share among languages and occupations – is “change” – short term, mid-term and long term.

    Taken in this context, it is somewhat easier to help people distinguish between “changes”, and the activities that may contribute to the changes. This is already the underlying premise for most results-based management frameworks in any
    case, and adding another layer of terminology to it, does not seem to clarify people’s thinking, or increase their enthusiasm for using the process.

    Talking about results in terms of change, on the other hand, makes it relatively easy to facilitate the discussion of results among people using different languages – and among the different occupational cultures – engineering, education, economics, governance, environment, for example, who often find that their specific occupational jargon obscures communication with other groups, with political leaders, and with the people they are supposed to be trying to assist.

    Once people clarify what has changed or what they hope will change, it is a relatively simple matter to translate this into the jargon of whatever donor agency they are working with.

    The jargon gets in the way of explaining the results, but focusing on “change”, seems to make the process a bit simpler.

  9. In my understanding to these three words are :

    Activity -the process of reaching the aimed objective ,

    Out put -the effort of the activity

    Outcome – the quality received and service increased

    impact- long intended objective to change real problem.


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