Outcomes are “changes or benefits resulting from activities and outputs,” including changes in knowledge, attitude, skill, behavior, practices, policies, and conditions. These changes may be at the individual, organizational, or community levels. Impacts are “the ultimate effect of the program on the problem or condition that the program or activity was supposed to do something about.”1
Some individuals and organizations use the terms outcomes and impacts interchangeably. Others, such as the Environmental Protection Agency who authored the above definitions, use impact to refer to the highest level of outcomes. The National Science Foundation uses impact to refer to important improvements in the capacity of individuals, organizations, and our nation to engage in STEM research, teaching, and learning.
Regardless of how impacts and outcomes are defined, they are quite distinct from activities. Activities are what a project does—actions undertaken. Outcomes and impacts are the changes a project brings about.
Each of these topics has a designated section of the Research.gov reporting system. Gaining clarity about your project’s distinct activities, outcomes, and impacts before starting to write an NSF annual report will streamline the process, reduce the potential for redundancy across sections, and ensure that program officers will get more than an inventory of project activities. One way to do that is to revisit your project logic model or create one (to get started, download EvaluATE’s logic model template from http://bit.ly/ate-logic).
1U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2007). Program Evaluation Glossary http://bit.ly/epa-evalgloss