Basic questions an impact report should answer
20 October 2014
Someone I know recently read a charity’s impact report and set up a regular donation as a result. She said the fact that the charity reflected on its shortcomings, and made plans to address them, played a major part in her decision.
Charities have to be financially transparent and accountable to the Charity Commission. But they are not obligated to write about the difference they make with the money they spend, or confess when things go wrong. This means that we, the public, are not always able to test or explain whether the £17.4 billion we give a year to charities directly, and £13.7 billion via taxes, is worth it. And from the charity side, many may be missing out on support gained by more effectively engaging with funders, donors and beneficiaries.
Asking a few basic questions before writing your impact report will help you establish how and what to communicate.
- Why should anyone read it? What do you want people to learn?
Before working in impact and evaluation, I only ever read charity impact reports to swot up for job interviews. It gave a slightly pleasanter version of the accounts and told me the number of people who used the charity’s services. This was all well and good, but I was often left wondering whether it had made a difference to the beneficiaries, and what that difference was.
- Who’s your audience?
Funder, commissioner, or nosy job candidate, I am not sure if all charities really consider who they‘re addressing in their impact report. Do funders want a generic, pretty-looking thing full of numbers, or do they want a bespoke evaluation that shows the outcomes of their funding? Funders like to be looked after and treated well, so I suspect it’s the latter.
- Who should produce it?
I’ve heard many charities say that their Communications team owns the impact report. Comms bring vital expertise to the table when it comes to writing and producing a decent report, but it’s imperative that the impact team, or someone who knows and understands the data, leads on the content. Without this, you risk showcasing a list of outputs and activities, instead of outcomes and impact.
- What’s the impact?
This goes back to thinking about your audience and how you want them to respond. What are you hoping for when you write an impact report? You must be clear what change you want to prompt—and, if you’re really pushing the boat out, measure that impact too.
I’m concerned that impact reporting sometimes becomes a box-ticking exercise that’s more about jumping on the impact bandwagon than actually doing it properly. Because, doing it properly requires quite a bit of work first. Impact reports are only as good as the data they rest on, and are the final step in four main areas of activity comprising the cycle of good impact practice. Unless you’re clear on your aims, collect relevant data with the right tools and analyse it correctly and honestly, then you cannot hope to learn from it or communicate with your stakeholders.
Impact reports may be optional, but surely we all feel an obligation to review whether our services are making a positive difference to beneficiaries—and to do something about it if not.
I’d love to hear from funders who have used impact reports to help make decisions, and from charities about how they go about this process. And I’d like to see some examples of an impact report done well so we can continue to improve. Please get in touch with me at sarah.handley@thinkNPC.org.