How do you know whether your organization is making a difference? We talked to leaders at nine different large nonprofits to learn about the technology and strategies they use to help themselves answer that question. From this research we created a report that tells their unique stories and outlines their practices. You can read the report at:

However, in the course of that research, it became clear that not all organizations use the same terms when talking about this topic.

Performance management is commonly used to refer to a wide range of activities—from program outcomes to individual employee performance. To some, program performance management clarifies the issue, but that term often gets confused with program evaluation, which is sometimes used to define the practice of looking at the success of a program after it’s completed rather than while it’s still in progress. And we often hear that nebulous-but-important word “impact” get thrown around, which is just as often used to refer to small interventions as it is to sweeping change.

Idealware views the terms this way. Performance management is the all-encompassing term that includes outcomes management, employee management, program evaluation, and most other practices relating to data about programs. Our report focused on outcomes management systems, which is our term for how organizations measure their impact, or success in the wider world, when it can’t be easily rolled up from the constituent level.

The terms outcomes and outputs are not without confusion themselves. These are distinct ideas and opportunities for measurement. Outputs are the result of the activities an organization has carried out. For example, the number of people who turned out to a rally or the number of acres preserved by a land trust are outputs. Outcomes go further. They look at how outputs had a broader effect on the world. For example, that rally that thousands of people attended could have contributed to the passage of legislation. The legislation creating a new freedom or banning a harmful practice is an outcome. Similarly, the acres protected may have produced the outcome of hundreds of new migratory birds or cleaner drinking water. Counting those birds or measuring the pollution levels in drinking water are the outcomes because those are the results that the original activities were trying to produce.

An outcomes management system looks at both—outputs and outcomes—in whatever way is meaningful to the organization to help it draw lines of progress and provide tangible measurements for processes that are at times abstract, complex, and messy.

Even if we all agree on the terms, you probably have never heard of an outcomes management system. In fact, there is no such software. In our research, we did not uncover any software in use that could be described as a comprehensive outcomes management system.

But that doesn’t mean that many organizations are not trying to put together their own systems. Read our report to find out how organizations such as GuideStar, the United Nations Foundation,, Habitat for Humanity, and more have developed their own systems for measuring outcomes. You may discover approaches that could work at your organization.

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Photo credit: NASA HiRISE camera, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons