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Public engagement 4: Outputs ≠ Outcomes

This month Hassun El-Zafar, our Public Engagement Officer, discusses the difference between objectives and outputs when planning outreach and public engagement activities. What do you want to achieve? How do you think you can do it? Share your thoughts with Hassun via email at or on Twitter @HassunElZafar.

We’ve now lost track of our time in lockdown. But as I sit at my newly made workspace at home, facing directly into our front room window, it’s time to write another blog article.

Over the last months we’ve been relooking at how we do public engagement, what we want to achieve and how we can achieve this within the time, resources and new normal we find ourselves. It is indeed a strange time, but also one that demands creativity, imagination and ideas, and requires us to not just think outside the box, but to make a whole new box, or to throw the box away and be radical, brave and bold.

Public engagement thrives when boundary-pushing ideas give audiences experiences that are memorable, enjoyable and/or empowering. I recently did a masterclass with Aaron Sorkin on story ideas, and I think some of it is applicable for this blog. Sorkin states that there’re two parts to having an idea, the first is knowing what an idea is. Something as broad as “chemistry of food” isn’t an idea, but a concept. It’s helpful in giving a sense of direction, but it’s not an idea yet.

Something like “chemistry of food” becomes an engagement idea when we start thinking of the objectives that we want to achieve and the outputs that we use to do to help us achieve this.

This brings me to the purpose of this article: to talk all matters outputs and outcomes – what they are, how they often blur into each other and how effective public engagement can make the most of them being clearly defined and differentiated.

I like to think of objectives in the same frame as what organisations call “visions”. The objective is the purpose behind the project, the reasons why it needs to be done and the motivation for why people should get involved. On the other hand, outcomes are what those same organisations would call “working plans”: what you’re going to set out to do and the mechanisms through which your objectives will be met.

I understand why the two can get confused, from experience it is usually due to one of the two being defined very weakly. Successful organisations have bold objectives, for example, Nike’s objective, even in its early days was never simply to sell running shoes, but rather Phil Knight (co-founder of Nike) wanted to make ordinary people feel like Olympic winning athletes. It sounds impossible, but it’s that vision that propelled Nike into being a world-renowned sports brand. The selling of shoes, signing of sponsorship deals (e.g. Air Jordans) and expansion into attire were all outputs in achieving that one objective.

Let’s go back to the “chemistry of food” idea:

You want people to engage with the Chemistry of Food… Why?
Because I live in a food desert filled with liquor stores, fast food restaurants and vacant lots. The obesity rate is five times what it is in a more affluent area just eight miles away.

I’m hooked, you got a plan?
To install a vegetable garden on the strip between the footpath and the street that the city owns but the resident has to maintain.

Ok, but how’s that going to address the problem?
The garden becomes a tool for the education, a tool for the transformation of my neighbourhood. To change the community, you have to change the composition of the soil. We are the soil. Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus you get strawberries.

Sounds great, and strawberries too? Sold!

Now, I’ve obviously simplified this. But this is actually a real idea by Ron Finley, AKA the Gangster Gardener from South Central LA; his brilliant TED talk can be seen here.

Ron’s objective was to make his community understand the importance of healthy eating and the value of food production. His outputs included changing old green sidewalk grass areas into fruit and vegetable gardens, abandoned car lots into gardening schools, old trailers into farm markets, and much more.

Note, each output fits into being a mechanism into achieving the overarching objective, which is his source of motivation, the reason why he started his project and continues to pursue it every day.

What I love is that he thought outside the box, started small, learnt more about his audience and continued to build ways to better and better engage his community. His project still runs today and he’s become a community and global role model (and he didn’t even need a camera to do it).

So on your next outreach project, think about your motivation and be bold and aspirational like Ron. I think the world needs creative engagement projects like his more than ever.

This is our fourth blog article from Hassun, you can read the others in the series here:
  1. Know Your Audience 
  2. Co-Create, Co-Create, Co-Create
  3. What now?

Posted by Aurora Walshe on Jul 1, 2020 11:00 AM Europe/London

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