This blog shares ideas from our recent online seminar, in partnership with The Clothworkers’ Company, on impact measurement for trustees. The speakers included James Noble, NPC’s Associate Director for Data and Learning and a trustee of PSPA; Jenny North, Director of The Clothworkers’ Foundation; and Nazmin Akthar, Co-Chair of the Muslim Women’s Network UK.

Impact measurement is an important way for charities to demonstrate their achievements, but also to learn about and improve their work. How can trustees support impact measurement in their charities?

Most of us working in the charity sector spend time thinking about the impact of our work, and the long-term effects of our activities. But what exactly do we mean by ‘impact’? Impact can be tricky to define. At NPC, we believe impact is best described as ‘the sustained effect of an activity on individuals, families, communities or environments.’ Impact refers to meaningful, long-term changes and it’s something that individual charities will contribute to alongside other organisations and actors.

While understanding your impact is important, it is difficult to measure. Long-term impact requires complicated methods and the investment of resources to evaluate it. It can be difficult to attribute long-term change to a single activity, even if the data is available.

Where’s the best place to start?

A theory of change is a great place to start your impact measurement journey. The process helps you to think about and describe what you’re trying to achieve, and how you plan to get there. It can also help you to clearly define your intended impact, and the intermediate changes you hope to achieve along the way, from which you can develop a measurement framework. Measurement frameworks are a way of planning and structuring the data you want to collect, and thinking through what questions the data will help you to answer.

When it comes to impact measurement, it’s important to look at what evidence already exists before deciding what you want to measure yourself. This makes sure any measurement you decide to carry out is efficient and not duplicating any existing work, and it helps you to keep a proportionate approach—focusing your efforts where they are most needed. In many cases, there will be an existing evidence base that can help ground the hypotheses articulated in your theory of change. For example, the link between increased physical activity and improved health is well-documented, so there’s no need to collect data to evidence this change.

NPC’s five types of data framework shows how collecting other kinds of data can generate useful insights about your work. For example, collecting routine data on service users and the way they engage with a service can help answer questions about whether you’re reaching your intended target groups, and how accessible your service is.

When you’re collecting data, it’s important to think about using both quantitative and qualitative methods, so you can use both numbers and stories to illustrate your impact. It’s helpful to think about learning ‘a little from a lot, and lots from a few’; you can use methods such as quick feedback surveys to generate data about key trends from larger groups, and you can use qualitative methods to gain more in-depth insights from a representative sample of your service users.

Our resources on starting to measure your impact offer more guidance on what to consider when doing all of this for the first time, including further defining what impact practice is and articulating a clear path to success.

The role of trustees

While responsibility for impact measurement lies with staff, trustee oversight and support in this area can be incredibly valuable, and bring accountability into your organisation.

Jenny North, Director of The Clothworkers’ Foundation, advises trustees to gain clarity on the impact goals of their organisation, and to think about ways of incentivising focus in this area. It can be easy to deprioritise impact over other issues such as finances, particularly as impact can be difficult to measure and understand. Jenny suggests allowing sufficient agenda time in trustee meetings to discuss impact.

There is a huge amount of time spent talking about finances … although of course it’s really important, and it is one of the core responsibilities [of trustees], one of the reasons that we spend so much time talking about it is because we know how to measure it.

Jenny North, Director of The Clothworkers’ Foundation

It’s also useful to clearly define what questions you’d like to answer through your impact measurement. For example, you might want to better understand what ‘good’ looks like for your service delivery. This can help shape what your impact measurement framework looks like.

Trustees should also monitor whether staff at different levels of the organisation have access to the right level of data on impact—for example, senior managers might need to see aggregated data on progress at a higher-level, while front-line staff may need more specific insights.

Jenny also recommends prioritising day-to-day, routine data collection to generate frequent insights on your work:

That day-to-day, or month-to-month, collection gives you the best chance of understanding what you do, which as a trustee is really at the heart of your responsibilities.

Jenny North, Director of The Clothworkers’ Foundation

How can impact measurement support your organisation?

Nazmin Akthar, Co-Chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK, shared her experiences of working with her board to develop the organisation’s impact measurement approach.

Thinking through what impact they wanted to achieve and how they planned to achieve it, and then collecting the data to support this, has helped Muslim Women’s Network UK to adapt existing activities and shape new ones. For example, by collecting data on key themes from their helpline conversations, the team identified Muslim women’s experience of the criminal justice system as a key area of need. This led to a variety of new activities, including additional counselling sessions, commissioned research, and training workshops and events.

Nazmin also recommends measuring data routinely where possible, to help spot issues, guide decision-making, and re-evaluate the focus of activities. The key here is getting clarity on the kinds of questions you want to answer and prioritising them based on what is most important and most feasible, to ensure a proportionate approach to data collection.

Measuring impact helps us to make better governance decisions, not just for our service users but for us as an organisation, and as employers as well. And I strongly feel that all of this—by measuring impact, by proving impact—it increases trust and transparency in the third sector, which I think is really, really important.

Nazmin Akthar, Co-Chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK

This use of proportional data collection to inform decision-making is important and a topic NPC has also been exploring in relation to trust-based philanthropy. We are currently developing the next stage of this work to advise funders on how to apply these approaches to impact measurement.

Our next online seminar for trustees will be on the role of diversity, equity and inclusion in evaluation. Join us at this free event on 11 May 2022. 

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