Impact measurement is rising in prominence in the not-for-profit sector. The incentives and costs attached for organisations are clear – a lack of coherent impact measurement can deny charities the ability to ward off criticism about the effectiveness of their campaigns, for example. More pressingly, in the highly competitive financial environment not-for-profits continue to face, social investors, public commissioners and donors are all becoming more demanding about value for money – this makes measurement essential.
Here are some best-practice tips for organisations seeking to raise their game on demonstrating their impact.
- Be clear about what you are trying to achieve. What are the aims or goals for the activity, project or whole organisation? Unless you are clear where you are going, you will find it hard to measure whether you are getting there. This is your Theory of Change: what is the problem? What action are you taking? What do you think the effect will be when you have taken the action?
- Measure what changes as a result of what you do. This is not the same as monitoring and evaluation, where you count how many people you saw and find out if they had a good time. These are important to know but you should also show what changes
- Measure change over time. What is the position at the start, midway, at the end? So you need to collect information at least twice – it’s not a snapshot. Even better if you can collect information that shows what happens to people after they have left, after 6 months or a year. This demonstrates lasting impact
- Collect information that is relevant to what you are trying to achieve. It’s tempting to find out all sorts of things from the people who are providing information – but the more questions you ask, the fewer responses you are likely to get
- The level of measurement you undertake should be proportionate to the level of activity. You can’t expect people to give you lots of information if they used a telephone helpline for 20 minutes. It is quite different if you have supported people over several months and they have an investment in giving you feedback
- Don’t set up complex systems for small projects. If you are running a small community group, just aim for a light touch approach that won’t put people off. It’s better to have a simple system that everyone understands and uses than a complicated system that people are not motivated to use
- Try to get everyone involved in the organisation to buy in to the impact measurement you are doing. You will need everyone to help collect information and to pass it on effectively. In order to do this they will need to feel that it is important; to tell the story of what the organisation does, to improve the service that is offered to beneficiaries, to give everyone a voice. This will affect the quality of the information you collect
- Be systematic about how you collect data and analyse it. You don’t have to ask people everything, every day. You could collect information for one month a year, or the first week in the month, as long as it is systematic and representative of the numbers and types of people you generally support. And once you have collected information, analyse it to find out what it is telling you
- Share the information you have collected – provide numbers and stories. Make sure the stories you tell are typical of what happens to people. Too often case studies tell one extraordinary story, which doesn’t give a true picture of what happens to most people, week in, week out – this is valuable and, cumulatively, can tell a story that is just as dramatic
- Be specific about your audiences. If you want to show how your activities create savings elsewhere, make sure you separate the benefits to individual beneficiaries, their families or the wider community from the savings to other organisations, such as schools, the police service or the NHS. The SROI methodology on Social Value UK’s website is helpful here
- Be transparent and don’t over claim. The purpose of measuring impact is to prove to your stakeholders the value of what you do and to help your organisation to improve. It serves nobody if people produce inflated figures that are not subject to scrutiny
- There is no one size that fits all. Different organisations will measure different things in different ways. This sometimes frustrates funders and commissioners who want everything to be simple and straightforward – but life is a bit more complicated than that. If you can provide a well-evidenced narrative that fits your organisation, backed up by some realistic numbers, then your impact measurement will have succeeded
Nicky Stevenson is a member (consultant) with Eastside Primetimers, with a background in research and impact measurement