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A special breed of impact

The more I talk to people about impact measurement, the more I realise that the most obvious challenges are not the most important ones. Most of the time, the barriers that people identify are about the technical aspects of impact and measurement. Which outcomes should we focus on? How can we measure them? What tools and systems should we use to measure them?

Rather than these technical challenges, I believe the greatest barrier we face is leadership. Once an organisation has committed itself to measuring its results, it will overcome the technical challenges it faces and get on with it. But without the leadership and commitment required to make that decision—to focus on what it’s trying to achieve and how well it’s doing—those technical barriers will never be overcome.

What we know from our research—Making an impact (2012)—is that charities measure impact because they think it’s demanded by funders. More than half of respondents said this was their main driver for increasing efforts on measuring results. Only one in five said they did so because their leaders called for it.

We also know that if impact measurement is driven by funders, it is often an exercise in box ticking or jumping through hoops. It’s about reporting to funders and marketing the organisation, not about understanding impact, learning from and improving results. Ultimately, if measurement is driven by the former, we know it’s unlikely to become embedded in practice.

So the point I want to make is that it takes leaders to create organisations that are driven by evidence and truly focussed on maximising impact. Demands from funders will result in measurement activity, but rarely lead to impact-focussed organisations.

Those leaders who are committed to doing the best job they can, because their beneficiaries deserve nothing less, are a special breed. They overcome the many barriers they face both within and beyond their organisations: the fear from staff that impact measurement will lead to performance management and usher out lower performers; the fear from boards that it will expose certain activities that aren’t working as well as everyone likes to believe; the fear that even if they put effort into measuring results, and make their organisations more accountable to beneficiaries and transparent to the world, the funding market won’t take any notice and will carry on funding the status quo, not what’s really proven to work.

These leaders sometimes even put their missions in front of their organisations, realising that no organisation creates impact alone, and that to achieve their ultimate goal, they have to put collaboration before competition and think in terms of collective impact rather than competitive advantage. They might even contemplate the end that many talk about, but few ever accomplish—putting themselves out of business to achieve their goals.

Who are these people—this rare breed? I call them impact leaders. They focus on their mission above all else, and they do what it takes to get there. They overcome the many technical, cultural and financial barriers that impact measurement presents, because they have no alternative—it’s at the heart of their whole mindset to do the best possible job for the people they’re trying to help.

Impact leadership is far from easy. But it’s the most important element in the social sector’s ongoing development, towards achieving its true potential. And that’s why I’m delighted that NPC and CFG are running the second annual impact leadership conference—bringing together impact leaders who share this dogged passion, and helping them explore the barriers they face and how to overcome them.

We’ve created a short clip to illustrate all the piece of impact leadership – hope you enjoy!