Snake oil nonprofit consultants sell outcomes as impact

Google’s advertising algorithm knows me too well. Pretty much the only advertisements I see now are for non-profit services. I tend to click through to these advertisements as a way of checking the pulse of social sector offerings outside the typical circles I operate in.

Yesterday I clicked on this advertisement for Apricot non-profit software by CTK. The advertisement includes a product demonstration video for their outcomes management system in which the narrator conflates outcomes with impact ad nauseam.


Outcomes is not another word for impact. An outcome refers to a target populations’ condition, impact is the change in that condition attributable to an intervention.

While we all tend to be saying the same buzz words (“manage to outcomes”, “collective impact”, etc.) we lack uniform agreement on what these terms mean. In the case of outcomes and impact, these are terms that come from the evaluation literature, and are (hopefully) not open to the manipulation of social sector consultancies with more depth in marketing than social science.

There are some that believe helping an organization at least understand its outcomes is a step in the right direction. I count myself as one of them. But telling an organization they can infer something about impact and causality by simply looking at a distribution of outcomes is not only irresponsible, it is downright dishonest.

The promise of metrics is to help the social sector move toward truer insight, not to use data to mislead funders. Whether the persistently misleading misuse of outcomes metrics is intentional or the result of ignorance, it has no place our work, and only stands to derail the opportunity we all have to raise the standards of evidence in our sector.