Stacked dominos being pushed over by a pointed finger.

Embedding impact for funders

By Rosie Mcleod, Chloe Sheppard and Shaun Leamon 18 July 2023 5 minute read

NPC’s Rosie McLeod, alongside the Health Foundation’s Chloe Sheppard and Shaun Leamon, reflect and share learning on their work over two years to improve the Health Foundation’s approaches to impact and learning. 

NPC and the Health Foundation have been working on approaches to help colleagues to be impact-focused in their work, and which support strategic and corporate planning and review too.  As part of this we created a framework with tools and guidance to help teams better plan for and measure impact. While we’re still on that journey, Health Foundation colleagues are already seeing real benefits across the organisation. The learning has also helped the Health Foundation to refresh their impact strategy, with a set of ambitions to work towards and principles to guide how these will be achieved.   

The holy grail: learn, improve and innovate…without too much red tape 

How can foundations best learn and think about their own accountability? Many organisational leaders care deeply about impact and want to improve their approach. They also know that strategy and planning works better when it draws on a solid understanding of what’s gone before, which takes a commitment to learning. But when it comes to practice, there can be concerns that rigid approaches to planning for and measuring impact flatten nuance, impede innovation, and sink time.  

Some key questions for foundations to consider when approaching impact and learning are:   

  1. How to get a stronger sense of impact and accountability for spend when programmes operate in a complex landscape – influencing change in the wider system isn’t a linear path, ‘success’ is long term and beyond direct control, and not everything we care about can be measured.  
  2. How to use learning to help innovate and work in agile ways, directing resources where they have the greatest chance of success.  
  3. How to strike the right balance between accountability, reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and providing meaningful feedback loops, so that staff get back what they put in.  

There are no perfect solutions, only trade-offs. And while programme evaluation is well established, approaches to charitable foundations’ own assessments and reviews are less so.   

Where we’ve got to 

Here are a few elements of our approach, against those three questions.  

1. How to approach impact as a complex organisation, working on systemic change  

A new strategic plan for the Health Foundation has brought greater coherence to the organisation’s work. Alongside this, the framework has helped to align approaches to impact at different levels of the organisation. The intention is to provide a clear ‘golden thread’ from projects through to wider strategy and organisational impact. To help planning and learning, there has also been a focus on how work at those levels connects and interacts.  

Graphic showing NPC's framework for systems change for the Health Foundation. Image displays 3 circles containing the text: corporate, strategic priorities and projects and programmes.

To address the challenges in measuring impact, the approach to impact uses a broad range of quantitative and qualitative evidence.  And we’ve learnt to acknowledge important but less tangible impacts that are not easily measurable in the short term, as we work to influence whole systems.  

2. Using learning as an enabler of innovation 

NPC’s work has looked at people, systems, and culture. The Health Foundation team has learnt that training, tools and guidance, alongside support for staff to better plan for and measure impact, are essential.  They have also improved how they share knowledge and learning about their work.  This sense-making should happen at the level that’s most meaningful.  The Foundation has begun to create formal and informal spaces designed to make connections to catalyse ideas and to connect learning with decision-making and action.  

3. The balance between accountability and reducing unnecessary bureaucracy 

Who ‘owns’ impact work, and accountability for doing it and what the results are? The Health Foundation is pursuing shared accountability across the organisation, with some dedicated resource. Role modelling at senior levels has been emphasised as really important for staff buy-in.  

One person’s bureaucracy is another person’s accountability and standardisation of measurement approaches often competes with the need for flexibility and autonomy. They have learnt that they need to be adaptable. NPC have helped introduce a degree of common practice, with shared language, mandatory questions to answer, and aggregation where possible. But staff can still tailor approaches, so that they’re suitable for different types of work. We’ve also been clear to Health Foundation colleagues that they should invest time and energy proportionate to the project and the benefits of learning to future work.  

This is the work  

It’s increasingly acknowledged that to change systems – to find ways to get improvements in complex or intractable fields – measurement and learning need to be part of the work itself. Not an assessment of the work, but an integrated part of the doing of it. We’re aiming for these approaches to accountability and learning to be core to our strategy, business planning, and operations.  

We’re also keen to learn alongside others – so to discuss this work and connect with us on it, please contact Chloe Sheppard: 


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