Introduction to Outcome Thinking

Laying the foundation for measuring impact

06 Jan 2024
8 Min
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What is Outcome Thinking?

Outcome Thinking is a mindset:

  • It is a focus on what changes or impact your programs are having in the clients or community you serve.
  • It links your program activities to the end result you seek.
  • It is a prerequisite for taking an honest look at whether your program is having an impact.

Common Terms and Definitions


  • Definition: End goals you strive to achieve in your community; generally greater than what your program alone can achieve
  • Ask: What change do we hope to see in the community? What is our work contributing to, as an end goal for our community?
  • Example: Our community's children reach their full potential


  • Definition: Changes in your participants or in your community’s conditions that you expect to result from your program activities; may be changes in knowledge, attitude, behavior, skills, or condition.
  • Ask: What change or difference do we expect to make in our clients' lives?
  • Example: Improved school performance among our participants


  • Definition: Observable and measurable evidence that your outcomes are being achieved; specific – can be seen, heard or demonstrated
  • Ask: What will allow the clients and us to know that any change has occurred?
  • Example: Average grades are better than when entering into program for 60 percent of participants


  • Definition: Products of your work activities, intended to lead to the desired outcomes in your clients
  • Ask: How do we capture the volume of work we do?
  • Example: Twice-weekly, small-group tutoring sessions for an eight-week period, for a total of 24 fourth- & fifth-graders


  • Definition: Methods, techniques or strategies for carrying out your program; the ways you try to address the needs or problems faced by your clients
  • Ask: What do our staff/volunteers actually do?
  • Example: After-school tutoring and enrichment program focused on academic skills, confidence and motivation


  • Definition: Resources needed to carry out your program; includes: staff & volunteers, time/hours devoted to planning/implementing program activities, money, facilities, even participants
  • Ask: What is needed to implement our program well?
  • Example: Coordinator, two stipended tutors, counselor, sports/activities specialist, facilities, materials

Contrasting Mindsets


  • What services do we offer?
  • What is it that our agency does?
  • What service needs does our agency meet?
  • What public information strategies do we use?


  • What results do we hope to realize with our services?
  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • What changes in conditions or behavior are we trying to effect?
  • What changes in attitude are we attempting to effect, with whom?

Why assess outcomes?

  • To understand if your programs are making a difference
  • To make course corrections, as needed
  • To plan for sustained and/or greater impact
  • To make your case to attract: funding, staff, leadership, clients, and media attention
  • To inspire and focus your board, staff and volunteers

What are the steps to program assessment?

  • Step 1: Define your intended results
  • Step 2: Articulate your “theory of change” – how your program will lead to results
  • Step 3: Identify “indicators” – or observable & measurable evidence – of results with your clients
  • Step 4: Develop systems to track those measures and analyze the information
  • Step 5: Analyze the data and draw conclusions
  • Step 6: Use the information to plan, adjust program
  • Step 7: Modify the assessment system, as needed

What do we need to proceed?

  • Shared understanding of basic terms
  • Some tools or models that can guide your thinking
  • A working group to tackle this
  • A sequence of steps to follow

Theory of Change

Theory of change:  Articulates your organization’s assumptions about how your program activities lead to the ultimate results you would like to see in the community at large 

  • Reflects your assumptions about how your activities will ultimately contribute to the change (community results) you are working towards
  • Links strategies to intended results
  • Explains how and why the desired change is expected to come about
  • Is conveyed in an outcome map
Sample Outcome Map
Logic Model Format

Logic Model

Logic model: Builds upon your Theory of Change to map the inputs, outputs, and outcomes of your program, as the basis for identifying how you might assess program success

  • Articulates the elements of your program -- from inputs through to results -- and the relationship between them.
  • Graphic representation that shows logical relationships between inputs, outputs, and outcomes
  • Can be extended to include indicators for an evaluation plan

Does this make sense for us?

  • What would be gained by trying to define our theory of change or logic model?
  • How important is it to us...
    • to measure change in our clients?
    • to assess our effectiveness?
  • What are we willing to invest in this effort?
  • What would make that investment worthwhile?

How do we get started?

  1. Choose a program to focus on
    1. A "program" is a set of related activities that all contribute to a common end purpose.
      1. Choose a program that has a defined purpose and client
      2. Choose a program in which program leaders and staff are
        ready & willing to engage in self-reflection.

  2. Form a working group
    1. Include members who understand the agency and know the program well 
    2. Include representatives of key functions:
      1. Development/fundraising
      2. Agency & program leadership
      3. Possibly the board and/or volunteers
    3. Keep the group small (5-7 individuals, maximum)
    4. Confirm that members have available time

  3. Map out an approach and work schedule
    1. Agree on:
    2. What materials would be useful to review (proposals, program reports, data on clients & community, etc.) for background information
    3. A meeting schedule: bi-weekly, day/times, date of the first meeting
    4. How the working group will operate and how to handle/assign key roles: group convener, facilitator, scribe, communications with staff and board

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