Do you ever feel intimidated when people start throwing around words like objectives, indicators, outcomes, and performance measures? Be honest, does your brain start to shut down a little bit, particularly when other words are added to the mix like SMART objectives or priority indicators or strategic outcomes? At the least, do you get confused about the differences between all of these words? 

Well, here we are exposing an evaluation secret: we don’t all use these words in the same way all the time!

Don’t be afraid to ask!

This secret has one key implication: it’s always OK to ask someone what they mean by the term they are using. Even (or especially!) if it’s a PhD evaluator with years of experience.

If you are shy about asking, you can say something like:

I know people sometimes use these kinds of terms differently. What do YOU mean when you say ‘________’?”


“How do you see the difference between X and Y?”

Meaning is more important than words

You want to be clear about what you mean, then you can pick the word you want to use for that concept. The folks who created Results-Based AccountabilityTM (RBA) made a handy 2-page guide to help us make this distinction between what you mean and the word you use to talk about it. Here are a few examples adapted from their guide:

ConceptCommon WordsWhat Word will YOU Use?
Person who benefits from your program or serviceClient
Program participant
Condition of well-being for communities or populationsGoals
Community indicators
How much did you do?Process measures
Performance measures
How well did you do it?Process measures
Performance measures
Is anyone better off?Short-term outcomes
Long-term outcomes
Performance measures
Population measures
Actual measures of the above conceptsMeasures
Performance measures
Population measures
Outcome measures

You can see there is a lot of overlap in the terms people use for different concepts. This is why the evaluation alphabet soup gets hard to swallow!

The point is to use clear and consistent language to get on the same page. If you don’t attend to this intentionally and explicitly, you may not even realize that you are not on the same page. 

Action idea: Audit your own language

We often fall into the language abyss in part because different funders and partners use different words for the same concepts. We had this challenge in a recent grant proposal that required vision, goals, objectives, activities, outcomes, theory of change, program performance evaluation, process evaluation, and indicators. This is a lot of concepts to align, with some overlap in the concepts. We focused on the implied definitions of the words – and added our own clarifications when necessary – rather than the words themselves to avoid a potentially messy and confusing evaluation plan!

Use the table above to clarify what words you use and how you are doing each of these things in your organization. If you are clear about what you mean by each word, you don’t have to worry if someone else uses a different word.

So, if you call something an “output” but a funder calls the same thing a “performance measure,” you don’t have to change what you are measuring. You can just change your language.

Take-home point

Don’t be intimidated by evaluation language. It’s the concepts that are important, not the language!  Be bold about asking for clarification.

Photomarathon 10 – The Alphabet” by Marie Buyens licensed under CC by 4.0.